Now that President-elect Donald Trump has secured the Presidency, he has begun outlining plans for education for his first 100 days in office, most of which are problematic concerning the prospects of equitable and high-quality public education under his future administration. His school choice model, in which parents can use vouchers to pick whatever school they would want their child to attend, would fund more popular schools, and close less popular ones.
In theory, his plan sounds like a good idea, as one would think that better performing schools would attract more students, and receive more funding as an incentive to continue to educate students well. However, studies have illustrated that higher performing schools tend to perform better because of differences in funding. In other words, schools with higher funding levels, which tend to be in more wealthy school districts, have more resources and more qualified teachers for students, which help students to perform better. Thus, Trump’s plan of operating education like a business, in which “good” schools are rewarded and “bad” schools are punished, only reinforces privilege that is already prevalent throughout our nation’s public education system.
The low performing schools that would be closed would be those in low-income neighborhoods with students from nondominant racial, linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds, who would really benefit from a high quality education the most. This idea that competition is the best way to improve our nation’s schools embodies the idea of neoliberalism, which is the belief that competition and markets can determine a hierarchy of winners and losers, thereby creating a more efficient system. Introducing markets into schooling would not only perpetuate privilege — by benefiting the wealthy and harming the poor — but would move our schools closer to treating education like a commodity, instead of viewing it as a public good, in which everyone should benefit. By utilizing education as a public good, and implementing social welfare programs to aid student’s success, similar to the policies found in countries like Cuba and Finland, the United States can move toward ensuring equal access to a high-quality education for all students.
In a country that prides itself on equality, why have inequalities of opportunities persisted for low-income and minority students? One possible reason is the two contradictory biological and social influences. Biologically, eugenicists perpetuate the antiquated idea that intelligence is inherited, whereas education researchers argue that systemic hegemony dictates school funding, resources and curriculum, thereby perpetuating fewer educational opportunities for low socioeconomic students. While eugenics gained popularity during WWII, a more recent work from 1994 entitled The Bell Curve contains similar themes, including the belief that “relative differences between the white and black populations of the United States, as well as those between men and women, have nothing to do with discrimination or historical and structural disadvantages, but rather stem from genetic differences between the groups.” However, education scholars have demonstrated through numerous studies, as this column has argued, that there is a social explanation of educational inequality of opportunity, such as differences in funding like Trump’s plan proposes.
The United States holds dearly the idea of a meritocracy, where anyone can do well in school and succeed if they try hard enough. This myth ignores privilege differences that act as the social basis for why there is inequality within our educational system. When analyzing countries that consistently produce high achieving students, like Finland, most of them also implement social programs to reduce opportunity gaps between high and low socioeconomic students. Finland, similar to Cuba, which was highlighted in last week’s article, has high levels of redistribution of wealth, essentially lowering income inequality. Moreover, Finland has a well-developed welfare state, which enables it to provide its citizens with high quality early childhood education, universal healthcare and high upward mobility.
Not only would Trump’s system create more winners and losers, it would also continue to perpetuate a system of education where privileged students perform better, and the students with lower social mobility and access to resources would perform worse. By addressing and remedying the worsening income inequality gap through the implementation of social welfare programs like early childhood education and universal healthcare, the United States can better ensure that all students are receiving a high quality education.
Julia Lawler is a senior majoring in history and social science education. Her column, “Get Schooled,” runs Fridays.