Trump, Falwell Jr. Signal Shift to Privatization for U.S. Education

As an educator in the U.S. for over thirty years, including nearly equal time teaching in public school and private higher education, I began to see light at the end of the accountability era tunnel of education reform in late 2016.

The call for a moratorium on charter school expansion from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) appeared to be a powerful and welcomed shift in the mostly bi-partisan support for accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing since charter schools had come over the years to embrace and represent the reform movement begun under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.

And while the predicted election of Hillary Clinton seemed to suggest similar education policies implemented under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, challenges to charter schools and opt-out movements rejecting testing across the U.S. revealed potential for public recognition that the education reform movement focusing on accountability was failing and that policy needed to address equity related to race and social class in both the lives and education of children.

However, Donald Trump’s election has dashed that small glimmer of hope — and signaled a much different shift toward privatizing both K-12 public education and higher education.

Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos [1], an advocate of school choice with no experience in education, announced a renewed assault on K-12 education, resulting in a contentious confirmation.

Just as disturbing has been another Trump initiative, as reported by Matthew Roza:

President Donald Trump has asked a member of one of America’s most famous evangelical families to lead a task force on higher education.

Jerry Falwell Jr. is the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. The Christian college, which was founded by Jerry Falwell’s father, told NBC News on Tuesday night that Falwell has been asked by President Trump to spearhead a group that will try to reform America’s higher education system.

Like DeVos, Falwell Jr. has a background mostly in private education (except for his JD from the University of Virginia) and his role as president of Liberty University positions him, again like DeVos, to benefit greatly from deregulating high education, specifically funneling public funds to private and online schools while also reducing the oversight of that funding.

The warning signals about what higher education can expect under Trump include, as Andy Thomason explains: a renewed push for expanding online education, mixing higher education policy with expanding gun rights, and more bully politics that ignore religiously conservative constituents.

Fallwell Jr. matches and expands the Trump playbook that includes populist rhetoric that contradicts evidence, a broad push to pander to religious and Christian interests, and choosing celebrity and wealth over expertise for promoting public policy.

Trump’s task force on higher education also comes in the wake of a professor watch list that has eroded public trust in and academic freedom by university professors, but also created the atmosphere in which Falwell Jr. and the task force can argue for allowing market forces to even the playing field of ideology in colleges and universities.

Along with bold-faced lies, Trump has benefited from coded language in both his campaign and the early days of his administration. Many rightfully fear coded language from Falwell Jr. that masks sweeping changes beyond higher education, as Trudy Ring warns:

Falwell specifically mentioned policies on accreditation and student loan repayment, but it would not be surprising if he saw policies banning discrimination against LGBT students as “overreaching regulation.”

The code of conduct at Liberty University, founded by Falwell’s notoriously homophobic father, states that “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural born woman are not permissible.” The university has hosted several anti-LGBT events, including some that endorse so-called conversion therapy. Among its other far-right positions, the school supports creationism and climate change denial.

Like K-12 public education, higher education in the U.S. has very real and pressing problems: inequity of access by black, brown, and poor students as well as skyrocketing costs and student debt.

Trump tapping DeVos and Falwell Jr. is a tone-deaf response to those real problems and a pure power grab leveraged on ugly ideologies: racial stereotypes, demonizing the poor, idealizing market forces, and hollow but chilling slogans such as “Make America Great Again” and “America First.”

Education, once again, under Trump is poised to be a political means to a corporate ends, another way to manipulate American blind faith in the free market to serve the interests of wealthy people like Trump, DeVos, and Falwell Jr. by eroding public institutions.

[1] Many have failed to recognize that DeVos is not an extreme or an outlier in terms of SOE since we have experienced a long line of appointees with little or no expertise or experience in public education; see UPDATED: From Spellings to Duncan [Add King]: Incompetence and Deceit.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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