Dangers and Opportunities Await Education Reformers

If Donald Trump succeeds in his attempt to co-opt the education reform movement, he will destroy it. While he pays lip service to our priorities — like school choice and effective teachers in every classroom — his actual goal of fundamentally undercutting public education in our nation is an existential threat to the very ideals that are so critical to student success.

As matters of fact, the President-elect has proposed eliminating school accountability, he promised to cut Title 1 funding for students in need, and he has pledged to dismantle the federal Department of Education — an organization mainly responsible for enforcing our civil rights laws. Now, even worse, he has chosen Betsy DeVos, a pro-voucher activist who has never worked in the public education system, to lead that Department.

Let us also not forget about the President-elect’s foray into education thus far: Trump University, which defrauded students out of millions of dollars.

He poses a threat not just to the education policies we believe in, but also to the communities public education is meant to serve. He has championed policies to put undocumented students and religious minorities at risk, and he has refused to condemn racial intolerance in any meaningful way. It should be no surprise that, in the last couple of weeks, incidents of school bullying are up — as are incidents of depression and suicidal thoughts among youth.

But for all the danger ahead for our public schools and our students, the next four years also present opportunities to build a broader coalition, focused on the students we serve. In three presidential debates and one vice presidential one, there was not a single question about public education. The failure to address both educational inadequacy and inequity rests on both parties and a media that should consider it their duty to address the issues most critical in the lives of American communities.

Many of the deep societal chasms exposed by this election relate to education levels achieved by voters who participated. When the greatest — and most tragic — indicator of success in life is the zip code in which a child is born, how do we expect people to keep faith in the promise of economic mobility? When less than 25% of students in our city are proficient in math, how do we expect people to adapt quickly to the forces of globalization and automation and stay employed in a changing world? In my view, it all begins with education.

And there is enough blame to go around. Some Democrats oppose education reform because of special-interest politics that put wishes of institutional donors ahead of what is best for our communities. And staunch education reformers sometimes lose sight of the fact that a progressive commitment to our kids must also mean advocating for policies that will improve their lives outside of school. That means fighting for improved access to clean water and nutritious food, healthcare, employment opportunities for parents, and for criminal justice reform that does not unfairly rob kids of parents and siblings in our most vulnerable communities.

Traditional political divides need to give way to a new coalition of education advocates that will advance a kids-first agenda. An overwhelming majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents believe that every educational decision should be rooted in what’s best for children.

Public education remains the last best hope for our democracy — and our system of public education is broken. Students of today will be the leaders of tomorrow — in politics, business, the military and beyond. The time to invest in them is now. Public schools are also where our national community is forged. They are the only American institutions in which kids from all walks of life are in one room, learning not just reading, writing, and arithmetic, but about our country and about one another. Public schools are where young Americans become engaged citizens and informed voters — risking public education means risking our democracy.

Donald Trump’s election is a nightmare for educators. We teach tolerance; he has preached intolerance. We teach children to be kind to each other; he ran as the schoolyard bully. We try to bring out the best in our students; he harnessed our worst impulses.

For our public schools, the ascent of Trump is a moment of peril. But it also creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a new political coalition, with public education at its center. The coming years will be a turning point — together, we can act to make it one for the better.

Nick Melvoin, a former public middle school teacher, is an attorney, teacher organizer and candidate for the Los Angeles School Board.