2016 – the year of geopolitical turmoil, epidemics, social unrest, police violence, and global terrorism – ranks for many among the worst ever. Those who find themselves comparing 2016 to 1943, 1968, or 72,000 BCE, however, might take note of the victories won by the left in the past year, particularly in public education.
In 2016, New Orleans officials won back local control over the vast charter school network in place since Hurricane Katrina. Milwaukee teachers and activists blocked a state-takeover that threatened dozens of Milwaukee public schools. And the Chicago Teachers Union cut a deal that preserved pensions and compensation just hours before striking.
Local victories like these have stymied education cuts and anti-union efforts that have, in the last decade, become ubiquitous across Republican-controlled states. But that doesn’t mean that 2017 will get any easier, thanks in part to the Trump administration. The president-elect has already pledged $20 billion to expand voucher programs nationwide, and his appointee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, views dismantling public education as a mission from God.
The $20 billion commitment is a massive increase in spending compared to the Department of Education’s 13-year-old Charter School Program (CSP), which surpassed $3 billion in spending as of 2015. The existing CSP has neither the resources nor the funds to drive a large-scale privatization plan, seeking instead to foster collaboration and communication between charter programs “to disseminate information about ones with a proven track record.”
Trump’s $20 billion plan, on the other hand, is meant to be implemented in the first budget of his administration, an increase of one hundred times the CSP’s $190 million budget on new and continuing charter awards in 2016. With many media outlets viewing Trump’s pledge as an existential threat to public education, the question becomes: Exactly how much damage can DeVos do to public schools?
According to University of Wisconsin professor John Witte, there are several roadblocks that might impede the proposed national voucher program, stemming in large part from DeVos’s inexperience. As a pro-voucher lobbyist, DeVos has primarily worked with like-minded advocates, an environment that Witte characterized as a “club.” This may set her up for a rude awakening, considering the partisan and inter-party divisions on voucher programs. While targeted vouchers – which grant families in underperforming school districts stipends to spend on charter or private schools – generally find support with party centrists, DeVos favors a much more sprawling and deregulated program.
Unlike a targeted program, a universal voucher program would deliver vouchers to middle and upper-middle class families, many of whom already use private schools. According to Witte, this rift could lay bare differences within the Republican Party. “Not all Republicans are in favor of vouchers. A lot of moderates see universal vouchers as irresponsible,” he said.
There are a number of technical issues that could halt DeVos’ progress, too. A New York Times article estimated that Trump’s $20 billion proposal, as expensive as it is, would still require states to contribute $110 billion for nationwide vouchers – an almost insurmountable sum given the Republican allergy to tax increases at the state level. The more immediate threat, according to Witte, is in the states. Since the November election, 25 states with Republican governors now hold majorities in their respective state senate and house. Through these supermajorities, Republicans have more than enough power to privatize, defund, and deunionize education in their states.
What exactly can these supermajorities do to suppress education? Take Wisconsin’s teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, once among the most powerful unions in Wisconsin. Before Act 10 passed in Wisconsin in 2011, WEAC “was the strongest union in the state,” according to Witte. The union spent nearly $5 million in the two legislative sessions before Act 10, which severely curtailed collective bargaining rights. “Now, they have nothing,” Witte said.
Trump’s victory and DeVos’s voucher advocacy, if more symbolic than effectual, could still motivate Republican supermajorities to cut further from education in an effort to move public education into the private sector. Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson, a critic of the state’s recently halted K-12 takeover, shares this concern. In an email, Larson said that “we are seeing a renewed threat to public education through both the Trump and Walker administrations. Though Governor Walker paid lip service to public schools in the ‘State of the State’ address, his track record of cutting funds and privatizing neighborhood schools remains, and foreshadows further attacks on public education.”
Though he hopes for a rededication to neighborhood schools and teacher recruitment initiatives in Wisconsin’s teacher-starved districts, Larson doesn’t expect it to be easy. Regardless of the incoming administration’s plans, the message so far has been clear: Calls to privatize public education will be louder than ever.
In response, Larson suggests a simple solution: “Get organized, speak up. The best thing concerned citizens can do to help defend our neighborhoods schools is to get involved.”