Sheer Vanity: One Educator’s Response to the Trump Administration’s Push to Return to the Classroom This Fall

It was March 6th, 2020 and every student at the middle school I was placed at that day was brimming with energy for the upcoming Spring Break. Although I tried my best to get a room full of young teens to review the dramatic structure of Romeo and Juliet, there was far more enthusiasm for the idea of a break from the everyday routine of middle school.

Nevertheless, I was happy in spite of the pushback from students that day. While I did not major in education, I quickly realized after graduating from college with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy that what I had studied was a playbook for pedagogy. I was given the tools on how to learn throughout my studies through countless hours of close readings and working through logic problems. After much reflection, I knew it was my responsibility to pass these tools down to others, so I became a substitute teacher in preparation for graduate studies in English as a Second Language education.

Although attempting to motivate students to think about how to place different scenes of Romeo and Juliet on their dramatic structure charts the day before Spring Break was an exciting challenge, I was admittedly focused on my own Spring Break plans. I was planning on seeing Emma with a friend. I was going to see a St. Patrick’s Day parade. I was going to celebrate my sister’s 22nd birthday. The break was going to be exciting.

At the time, there were only 5 cases of COVID-19 in the entire state of Texas. However, the only unfortunate side effect of the pandemic I had seen so far was outright racism towards Asian members of my community. I did not expect to see cases rise too much, but I still cautioned students to stay safe and wash their hands frequently before the final bell rang.

That was the last time I saw those students. As of today, it is now estimated that there have been 264,313 cases of COVID-19 in Texas. My mother was one of those cases. I am scheduled to return to work in person on August 17th, which is only 22 days from now. The week after, I start graduate school online.

It makes me sick to my stomach to know that President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened to cut off funding to schools if they do not fully reopen under these conditions. While it has been pointed out that the president cannot unilaterally cut funding for education approved by Congress, the threat of key funding for students and teachers being cut out of President Trump’s sheer vanity is present. I still plan on being a substitute teacher until I work full time for graduate school credit at a later semester and I have trouble wrapping my head around how I could float from campus to campus in a way that protects myself and others under Trump and DeVos’ ideal COVID-19 school year. I’m deeply scared.

To bring the scale of this threat into perspective, we have to examine the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request from the Department of Education. Our education system is largely funded by state and local taxes, only 7% of elementary and secondary education was federally funded in 2019–2020. However, that 7% accounted for $60 billion for education across the entire country and the programs that these dollars go to are vital to schools. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides federal funding to schools with at least 40% of their student population qualifying as low income according to the Census in Title I, Part A. This program serves approximately 25 million students in nearly 60% of all public schools. Our local elected officials on school boards and superintendents are the primary decision makers in determining school reopenings. If President Trump and Secretary DeVos were to selectively cut federal funding to school districts that choose not to become fully operational come August, our country’s poorest students would be left with less resources based on how funding has been allocated in our national budget for elementary and secondary education. Additionally, this budget would slash education funding by consolidating many key programs into a block grant. Programs like Title I, Title II, English language acquisition, rural education, homeless education, and Native Alaskan and Hawaiian education are effectively eliminated and replaced by block grants to states using the Title I formula. Programs not assimilated into the block grant funds (like Indian Education, Training and Advisory Services, and Supplemental Education Grants) would be frozen at their current levels.

President Trump’s attacks on public education through Secretary DeVos do not end on those recent threats. This administration has been repeatedly threatening a student’s right to an education as protected under the 14th Amendment due to Plyler v. Doe as a result of Secretary DeVos’ desire to advance faith-based private education at the expense of public education. While it is permissible to teach about religion in public schools (which I have during a 6th Grade geography lesson), as a public school employee it is not my place to say what another student believes nor disbelieves is right or wrong unless a student is targeting another student based on those beliefs. Faith-based private schools do not operate like this. They will not and do not protect every student’s right to an education because they have the ability to be punitive towards faculty, staff, and students over beliefs, sexuality, gender, and disability status. If public education is put at risk, the 1st and 14th Amendment rights of students to personal expression and education are in jeopardy as well.

In a conversation with Secretary DeVos on SiriusXM radio, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, suggested that the secretary was trying to “utilize this particular crisis to ensure that justice is finally done to our kids and the parents who choose to send them to faith-based schools,” and she did not hesitate to say “Yes, absolutely.” Right from the start, the Trump transition team had to clarify to Mother Jones that “Mrs. DeVos believes in the legal doctrine of the separation of church and state.” when conducting investigative journalism on her qualifications to become Secretary of Education. Additionally, Betsy DeVos stated in a 2001 interview for The Gathering, a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, that “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” The Trump Administration is simply capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic to satisfy the desires of their core base of Evangelical voters and big ticket donors like Secretary DeVos. This base does not care if President Trump fails to say the Apostle’s Creed at a former president’s funeral or if he says “two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians”, he is a mere vehicle for their policies. All he has to do is show off the right surrogates at First Baptist Church in Dallas (in violation of the Johnson Amendment to the U.S. Tax Code banning 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office), appoint wealthy donors to the right positions, and he has a loyal following to fuel his ego. It may be the case that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, especially if the rich willingly put the education of low-income students at risk in God’s name during a crisis.

While it is the case that the beginning of the 2020–2021 academic year is far before the opportunity to vote President Trump out of office and the state of education remains uncertain due to COVID-19, we have to remember that there is a chance to start rebuilding upward. Vice President Joe Biden has plans outlined to triple funding for Title I so that educators are offered competitive salaries, three- and four-year olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework to all campuses. He has also outlined plans to recruit more educators of color and fix the notoriously hard-to-apply-to Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Considering that over half of the students I work with in my district share my Hispanic ethnicity, but under 20% of my colleagues do, we need pathways for more recent graduates like me to be incentivized to enter into education because I’ve seen with my own eyes how students respond when you are seen as a community role model. Biden also plans on expanding the community school model to over 300,000 additional students, working with families, students, teachers and community organizations to identify families’ unmet needs and then develop a plan to leverage community resources to address these needs directly on campuses. This would give so many more families access to programs like after-school care, health and social services, and adult education courses. With all that must be done to truly create an educational environment that serves all students, I cannot believe that this work can be done under a privatization model like Secretary DeVos would like to see enacted.

I may be frightened by the coming weeks, but at least there is a fighting chance to take back what has been lost from public education under the Trump Administration and to build up what has never been there in the first place. Please vote this November 3rd. Your educators, students, and families are counting on you.

Originally published at https://bidenwarroom.org on July 14, 2020.

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