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

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

P.L. Thomas, Professor, Education, Furman University

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.

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Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual, P.L. Thomas

Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual

P.L. Thomas, Professor, Education, Furman University

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.

None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.

First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.

Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:

Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.

In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times  just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.

The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.

O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.

However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.

So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.

There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”

Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?

In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”

So I want to end with my second controversial claim.

If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.

I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.

Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.

Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.

And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.

Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.

The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.

The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.

Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.

Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.

And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.

The responsibility of the intellectual?

For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.