The President Has Weaponized the Opening of Schools

On Tuesday, July 7th, President Donald Trump said:

We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open,” Mr. Trump said at a forum at the White House. “It’s very important. It’s very important for our country. It’s very important for the well-being of the student and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.

For all those single Moms and working parents who have been home schooling their children, managing summer activities, and wanting their sons and daughters to attend school in person in August, Donald J. Trump is behind them 100 percent. In pressing governors and local school boards for face-to-face instruction every school day, however, President Trump has weaponized tax-supported public schooling like no other President before him.

The President demanding schools across the country to re-open with children attending five days a week to get parents back to work and re-starting the economy, has, I apologize dear readers for the next word, trumped children’s and parents’ safety during a time when there is no treatment, no vaccine for the continuously and mysteriously mutating virus causing the disease of Covid-19.

Worse yet, with cuts in state and local budgets, schools will receive less money to hire more teachers, reduce class size, do health screenings, provide personal protection equipment to both teachers and students, and disinfect classrooms constantly. The President offers barely a drop in the bucket in federal funds to help schools provide the safety measures that parents (and grand-parents) must have before sending their children to school full-time.

Donald Trump’s call for schools to re-open again brings into clear view how his predecessors going back to Ronald Reagan and A Nation at Risk report in 1983 have hitched schools to strengthening the economy. Then and now, the primary reason for schooling is not to develop thinking, problem-solving, humane adults who prize their community and serve it–or even a safe place to be–but an institution that provides child care, releases parents to work at their paid jobs, provide human capital in the form of graduates entering the workplace, and thereby bolstering the economy.

As the President’s Secretary of Labor bluntly put it:

One study has suggested that if we closed all of our schools and day care for just a month–the impact on U.S. productivity would be in the order of $50 billion.

Harnessing schools to the economy, of course, is a tradition in American schooling. A century ago corporate and political leaders wanted schools to be more than academic institutions solely geared to college preparation. What these Progressive reformers wanted in the decades between 1890-1930 were schools that prepared children and youth for jobs.

Beginning in the early 1900s, academic high schools began offering elective vocational courses for industrial jobs in manufacturing and transportation, commercial occupations such as clerks, typists, and stenographers in business offices, and other posts opening up in an expanding economy. In 1917, the federal government provided funds for certain high school vocational courses through the Smith-Hughes Act. Local school boards built separate vocational high schools solely devoted to preparing students for a worker-hungry economy in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and scores of other cities (see here and here).

By the 1930s, the newly established and innovative Comprehensive High Schools gave students a choice of at least three curricula in high school. Newly hired guidance counselors helped students chose the college preparatory track, a vocational course of study or another curriculum, often called “general” that combined the two (see here).

After the end of World War II and into the 1960s, critics began attacking these multi-track high schools and separate vocational schools for being less intellectual and turning into dumping grounds for students who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do well academically. Critics in these decades pointed out that public schools had lost their way, ignoring civic and moral goals of tax-supported schools such as being engaged in the community and, after the Brown decision (1954), breaking apart the caste system that whites and minorities had been following since the Civil War ended slavery.

In these years, separate vocational schools closed. Elective courses in high schools multiplied. Students choosing curricula tracks became unpopular. Alternative and magnet schools flourished (see here and here).

Between the late-1950s and late-1970s, public schools had moved away from the dominant vocational goal that had seized Progressives nearly a century earlier. By the early 1980s, however, global competition with Germany and Japan revealed anew structural weaknesses in the U.S. economy.

Manufacturing companies closed in face of foreign competitors. Corporate CEOS cut costs by locating their work in countries where wages were lower than what they paid American workers. Economic recessions (older readers will recall the oil boycott and long lines at gas stations) with high unemployment and rising prices -called then “stagflation“) further eroded the U.S. economy. As had occurred before, business and political leaders saw education as a way of dealing with global competitors, “stagflation,” and a slowed down economy.

Public clamor over falling SAT test scores and the poor performance of U.S. students on international tests triggered a renewal of schools embracing the nearly forgotten vocational goal of public schools. Taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed the bipartisan National Commission on Excellence in Education. The Commission report, A Nation at Risk, stated:

The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people…. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.’

Any reader over the age 40 knows what happened next. Frantic calls for schools to improve. Condemnation of U.S. students scoring low on international tests. Business and civic leaders demanded that graduates have the content and skills to enter the workplace and help companies compete globally. States stepped up and raised graduation requirements, produced higher curriculum standards, and added more tests. By the 1990s, the pattern of Presidents from both political parties favoring the economic purpose of schooling (Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton) gathered strength culminating in the election of Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and his sending to Congress the first bill enacted in his administration, No Child Left Behind. Democrat Barack Obama endorsed NCLB and its embedded standards, tests, and accountability measures for his eight years in office.

Full circle. Within less than a century the primary purpose of tax-supported schooling had gone from vocational–preparing children and youth for the workplace–to where the nation is now in the aftermath of NCLB. Schooling remains a pillar of support of the economy.

And now President Donald J. Trump, facing a pandemic that has caused unemployment rates equaling those in the Great Depression of the 1930s and, of equal importance, a re-election campaign, calls for schools to fully re-open in the fall even though the level of risk to children and their teachers continues to be debated. Many parents across race, ethnicity, and social class remain unsure of whether to send their children to school for full-time face-to-face instruction.

There are two reasons why the President has turned to the issue of re-opening schools. The first is fear. The President relied–at least until March of this year–on a strong economy carrying him to another four-term term. That reliance has disappeared with the pandemic. Re-opening schools is a way, he believes, to get back to the pre-pandemic economy. Or as one White House adviser put it: “Parents can’t work if they are forced to stay home,”

So here again in 2020, public schools have been weaponized to serve the economy.

10 Comments

Filed under leadership, school leaders

10 responses to “The President Has Weaponized the Opening of Schools

  1. wjshan

    I hundred percent to agree with your call for schools to pursuing the goals “to develop thinking, problem-solving, humane adults who prize their community and serve it.”

  2. bluecat57

    And good for him. Obama weaponized the IRS, DOJ, FBI, State Dept. Hell, the entire Federal Bureaucracy. Heck, Obama even weaponized the Dept. Of Education. So what? Doesn’t everyone believe Trump is a dictator? About tome he acts like one to make them happy.

  3. Wow. This is a powerful article. Thanks for laying out the history. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Chester Draws

    What is the end game of isolation? How do we get out of this mess.

    Give me what you think is an appropriate time for schools to reopen. Are you going to wait until the disease is completely gone in maybe two or three years? Or do you accept that they have to reopen when there’s still a bit of it around? Because if you accept that some risks need to be taken in the real world, then all you and Trump differ on is the size of that risk.

    If you want to open in six months, be sure that there will be others braying at you that you are taking risks with young people’s lives. And if you don’t want to open in six month’s time, then you are asking for every student in America to lose over a year’s education!

    Trump might be weaponising education in your eyes. To my eyes his opponents are worse — they are weaponising *not* educating children.

    Students need to go to school. “Not till it’s safe” is a time that will never arrive.

    • larrycuban

      The questions you ask, Chester, are fair ones. As you know well there are no definitive answers that can be given since so much remains unknown about the virus and resources are limited. Yet decisions must be made. Thank you for raising these questions.

      • I’m with Chester. I don’t think Trump is deliberately weaponizing schools, although that’s the inevitable result of his prioritizing their reopening simply because our country is so polarized. But any President *should* make opening the schools a priority, not just for the economy but also for the students themselves. And this is really like the bandaid issue: you can rip it off or try to minimize the agony by pulling at it slowly, when in fact that just prolongs the pain.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for taking the time to comment. I am at a loss to parse the President’s motives, much less his policies when it comes to re-opening schools as a measure to get the economy up and running. The band-aid metaphor is apt.

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