"A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don't eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach," Donald Trump on the U.S. Department of Education.
As we in labor ponder the possibilities of a Trump administration and Republican led Congress, our thoughts are immediately drawn to the direct attacks on organized labor. While they are many and weighty in consequence, we must also not lose sight of indirect attacks on not only organized labor, but all of the things that we, as champions of equality and social justice, hold dear.
In the grand scheme of things, the US Department of Education, with its approximate 4,400 employees, appears to be a small and benign incision into the federal budget, and a cursory glance at Trump's expressed desire for more local control of education appeals to the knee-jerk populist bent of many who imagine only an overreaching, all too powerful federal machine.
But what does "local control" really mean to those on the far right? One of the things it means is inequitable funding for anyone not living in the most affluent communities. It has long been a source of ire amongst the privileged right that their tax dollars (if they actually pay any) might be going to support the education of some minority student in a poor rural or inner city school district. With the Department of Education out of the way, their dream of a public education system that only benefits upper middle class white kids would be much closer to reality.
While curriculum and who studies what are already largely locally controlled, the Education Department's testing and federal funding mechanisms has kept radical curriculum changes by local authorities largely at bay. With the Department of Education gone, we can look forward to state and district officials throughout red states to rid themselves of teaching such ridiculous notions as global warming, evolution, and science in general. And wouldn't it be easier to simply rewrite the already skewed version of history than to keep answering difficult and unsightly questions about slavery, Native Americans, the Civil War, and the Holocaust?
It is not difficult, especially in the current political climate, to imagine red states working to establish a generational following through early indoctrination in public schools and rewriting the American narrative simply by the omission of half of the events of the 20th century. Already, we have seen many battles waged in states like Texas and Kansas over these issues. With no Department of Education oversight, all such decisions would be left to local officials and the religious flavor of the day.
The following are from the President's 2017 budget for the Department, and outline many of the programs that will be under immediate threat from the right, even before they begin to dismantle the Department itself:
Title I: $15.4 billion to promote educational success among disadvantaged students with targeted resources to help to turn around low-performing schools.
Early learning: A commitment to early learning as a path to opportunity through Preschool for All, a total increase of $80 million for IDEA Preschool and IDEA Grants for Infants and Families, and an increase of $100 million to HHS for the jointly
administered Preschool Development Grants program.
Stronger Together: $120 million to develop and implement plans to increase socioeconomic diversity through voluntary, community-supported strategies.
Civil Rights Enforcement: $138 million, an increase of $31 million, to ensure equal access to education through more vigorous enforcement of our Nation’s civil rights laws.
Increases for additional programs that advance opportunity, including Charter Schools Grants, Magnet Schools Assistance, Promise Neighborhoods, English Language Acquisition State grants, Native Youth Community Projects, and, with DOL, Connecting for Opportunities.
Support a streamlined and expanded initiative to provide up to
$25,000 in student loan forgiveness for teachers graduating from an effective preparation program who serve in low-income schools.
America’s College Promise : A $61 billion investment to make community college free and provide low-income students with up to 2 years of college at a 4-year HBCU or MSI at zero or reduced tuition.
Second Chance Pell: Restore eligibility for incarcerated individuals eligible for release to help them transition into jobs and communities.
While all of these programs will be under immediate attack from the right under Trump, stock prices in private educational enterprises similar to Trump University are reportedly soaring following the election. Many such corporations serve only to divert federal dollars to private enterprises, and deprive their participants of anything of value, including our veterans using GI Bill moneys.
That is what is most important for the working classes to recognize in all of this. When the far right complain about government spending, they are never talking about any government spending that gets funneled off to the private sector. They don't mind it if their corporate donors are receiving 2 or 3 times as much as the average federal worker for each contracted employee they provide to the government. They don't care if veterans are denied of anything even remotely resembling an education, because corporate educational donors are raking in billions by exploiting them. And any dollar spent to ensure fairness, or guarantee equality, or extend the American Dream to anyone who might not otherwise realize it, is, in their view, a waste of resources that could have gone to tax breaks for the wealthiest "job creating" classes.
We in organized labor will all have our own private battles to fight in coming months, but in the midst of the smoke, we can ill afford to lose the war by allowing our enemies to claim an entire generation as casualties. Because if Trump and Company have their way with our education system, and use it to pander to their friends on the religious right and the alt-right, our current battles may well be our last.