Well, so far we’ve seen no sign of Donald Trump becoming more “Presidential.” In between his appointments of truly horrifying men to his cabinet, he continues to tweet petulant rejoinders to criticism and to whine about “unfair” media coverage; those childish behaviors have distracted attention from his equally disastrous policy agenda.
To the (very limited) extent that Trump advanced policy proposals during the campaign, those proposals centered upon privatizing government functions. When you drill down on his promise to address America’s decaying infrastructure, for example, what you find is a scheme to give huge tax write-offs to private contractors, who would be expected to finance and repair our bridges, roads and sewers; essentially, his plan sells infrastructure to private interests.
There will be a mix of tax giveaways and and corporate welfare to incentivize private sector infrastructure spending. And there is good reason to think that most of those giveaways will simply be pocketed for spending that was already happening. In other words, big giveaways, more budget busting without even getting the benefit of new stuff or spurring demand.
As depressing as that particular “bait and switch” proposal is–after all, America desperately needs a massive infrastructure investment–it pales beside Trump’s promise to spend twenty billion dollars on a school choice initiative.
Twenty billion dollars is a lot of money. Although Trump hasn’t been specific about the source of those dollars (surprise!), it appears he intends to take it from the $15.5 billion currently going to Title I grants for districts and the $12 billion currently going to state grants for special education.
Raiding those two pots of money would be devastating to districts serving poor children and those with special needs, and there are significant practical, political and legal impediments to such a program. Even if those impediments could be overcome, however, a massive new effort to privatize–or more accurately, abandon– the nation’s public schools is exactly the wrong thing to do.
I know I sound like a broken record, but voucher proponents fail to understand both the mission and importance of public education. They see schools as “vendors” providing a consumer product called marketable skills– as places to train the nation’s workforce.
Providing students with marketable skills is important, but it isn’t education. And it most definitely is not preparation for life in a diverse democratic culture. Public schools have a civic mission; as Benjamin Barber once put it, they are constitutive of a public.
Abandoning our public schools and privatizing other essential government functions is tempting to lazy legislators and administrators alike, because it’s easy. It doesn’t require actually knowing enough about the function or mission involved to accurately analyze the problems, marshal the necessary resources, or do the hard work of fixing what’s wrong.
Unfortunately, easy answers are almost never the right answers. It turns out that when public officials contract out government functions, they are still responsible for the results, and they typically lack the resources and expertise needed to properly monitor the contractor. The ensuing mistakes are costly, both politically and financially.
It also turns out that privatized schools and ill-conceived public-private partnerships have just as many problems and failures as public schools and projects, if not more–and they have the added negative effect of hollowing out government’s ability to function in important dimensions of our communal life.
Having raised children doesn’t equip me to offer child development services. Having run a business doesn’t equip someone to manage–or even understand– government. Trump is proving that point.