My Turn: The Trump diversion

  • U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talks with students in a sixth-grade science class at Cameron Middle School on April 1 in Nashville, Tenn. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 5/5/2019 12:30:17 AM

Amid this train wreck of a presidency, an administration marked by cronyism and incompetence, where compulsive lying has been normalized, it’s easy to miss the damage being done by Donald Trump’s minions beyond the White House.

What may be a strategy of diversion – daily outrages emanating from the Oval Office to deflect attention from the chicanery of Cabinet-level officials – has allowed surrogates to gut environmental protections, for example, and to undercut foreign alliances with impunity.

Although I doubt that this diversion is intentional, if it is, it’s brilliant: Focus the public’s attention on the shenanigans in the White House while political appointees systematically dismantle policies, protections and alliances that have been in place for years, even decades.

Two examples, education and the environment, illustrate the effectiveness and the destructiveness of this diversion.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, environmental safeguards began to fall, beginning with regulations on oil pipelines and then dropping restrictions on the dumping of mining waste into surrounding waterways. On his first day as interior secretary, Ryan Zinke rescinded prohibitions on the use of lead ammunition, which is harmful to wildlife, on federal lands and waters.

The Trump administration has sought to expand offshore drilling, to roll back automobile emissions standards, to nullify restrictions on coal power plants, to loosen regulations on toxic air pollution and to rescind protections for endangered whales and sea turtles. And on and on.

The Trump administration dropped climate change from the list of national security threats and, most important, withdrew from the Paris accords, the international agreement aimed at reducing the rate of climate change.

Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, might provide an even better example of the Trump administration’s success in undermining longstanding values and principles.

Just as Zinke and Scott Pruitt (Trump’s initial choice as head of the EPA) were avowedly hostile to environmental protections, so too DeVos is hostile to public education. The difference is that both Pruitt and Zinke were chased from office because of ethical violations (whereupon they landed cushy jobs with the industries they were supposed to be regulating; their replacements also have deep ties to energy and extraction industries).

DeVos, on the other hand, continues in office, where she has done, and continues to do, untold damage.

For decades, DeVos, who married into the Amway fortune, has been fixated on what she calls “school choice.” On the face of it, school choice is an appealing concept; we citizens in a nation of consumers like at least the illusion of choice, even in schools for our children.

While no one denies the right of parents to educate their children as they wish, DeVos and others in the so-called school choice movement want taxpayers to foot the bill, even when children attend private, parochial or other religious schools.

DeVos’s own education apparently did not include a unit on the First Amendment. If it had, she would recognize that religion has flourished throughout American history precisely because we have (for the most part, at least) observed Roger Williams’s and Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state.

She would also know, as legal scholar Philip Hamburger has argued, that emphasis on separation was animated by 19th-century fears that taxpayer money would go to support parochial (Catholic) schools.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, repeatedly stipulated that public money should not support parochial schools.

The education secretary could also use a bit of history about public education. Common schools (as they were known early in the 19th century) provided a way for the children of those less fortunate to secure an education and thereby climb the ladder toward the middle class.

As such, public education enjoyed the support of various religious groups, including evangelicals, and many of the early leaders in the common school movement were clergy.

Throughout American history, moreover, public education has also served as a tool of integration, a way to inculcate the values of citizenship in a nation of immigrants.

As an 1880 editorial in the New York Times explained: “The reason for the existence of common schools is that they are, or are supposed to be, good for the common wealth. It is asserted, and has hitherto been widely believed, that they make good citizens; that without them the mass of the community would be less virtuous, less happy, less thrifty; and that in a country where suffrage is, to all intents and purposes, universal, public schools are the sweeteners and the salt of morals and the light of legislation and of government.”

I suspect we could use a bit more virtue and morals in American society and government these days.

That’s not to say, of course, that public education has always lived up to these aspirations. Not at all. No one can deny that public education is in trouble; disengaged students, neglected infrastructure, crowded classrooms and poorly paid teachers bedevil too many school districts. Too many frazzled teachers “teach for the test,” a strategy inimical to learning.

But the solution is not, as DeVos would have it, starving public education and funding the exodus of middle and upper-class students, thereby exacerbating the socioeconomic divide. Providing taxpayer money to students for private and religious education betrays the mission of public education.

Public schools have played an invaluable role in American history and culture by providing a common ground for children of different ethnic groups and religious persuasions, regardless of social class – a place where, in the midst of a pluralistic society, differences could be explored and friendships formed.

At school – in the classroom or on the playground – children interacted with one another and, in the best of all worlds, learned to understand one another and to tolerate one another.

Whatever common culture we have attained in this country has come about largely through the agency of public schools. At the risk of sounding mawkish, I truly believe that public schools served to make America what it is by helping us to forge a mutual understanding of one another as Americans.

That’s an idealized vision, I acknowledge, but it still represents our best hope for reclaiming at least some measure of comity in our fractured society. Donald Trump has no interest in that, of course. His political fortunes rely on discord.

If we care about the future of democracy, however, we must attend to public education.

Betsy DeVos’s dystopian vision for education in America must not succeed, nor should the cynical, industry-friendly environmental policies of this administration. We cannot allow Trump’s tomfoolery to distract us from the real damage perpetrated by his surrogates.

(Randall Balmer, a proud alumnus of public schools in Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth.)

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