DeVos' School Choice Speech Couldn't Come At A Worse Time

With President Donald Trump perpetually wounding himself, the Republican Party risks finding itself torn apart between loyal Trump supporters and pragmatic Trump critics. Currently, the GOP has remained grudgingly, if unhappily, relatively unified with their controversial 2016 presidential nominee. Some more liberal Republicans, however, have openly mentioned their exasperation with Trump’s endless parade of quasi-scandals, the latest of which include the Comey firing and reports that Trump gave away secrets to Russia. Next Wednesday, former FBI Director James Comey will testify before Congress… and what he says could potentially break Donald Trump’s presidency.

You would think that, with all of this tension, the Trump administration would avoid doing anything controversial. And, yet, Trump’s most controversial appointee is being trotted out on Monday to deliver a speech supporting the most controversial mainstream initiative the GOP has cooked up in recent memory. That’s right: Betsy DeVos is about to propose spending big federal bucks on school vouchers.

If anything will rile the public right now, it is school vouchers. Public school parents hate the possibility that the schools their children attend will lose resources, as money and students are diverted to private schools. Despite conservative parents being more open to the idea of religious schools receiving government aid, no parents are open to the idea of their public school kids losing resources.

The blue collar Trump supporters, of course, are far more likely to have their kids in public school than private school. Although they are probably open to the concept of giving state funds to private schools, they are likely to become much less receptive when they understand many of the string attached: Private schools can deny applicants, easily expel students, and raise their tuitions. Simply put, getting in is no guarantee of staying in.

And, with even the conservative state of Texas having put the kibosh on school vouchers back in April, it seems like a bad time to risk a nationwide proposal. If Texas won’t follow the Trump/DeVos line on school vouchers, you know it’s a political risk for conservatives!  Allegedly, it was Republicans in rural districts who showed no love for vouchers, knowing that their public schools would lose funding to private schools that are only found in urban areas.

With much of Trump’s support coming from rural states like Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, a nationwide school voucher initiative seems like a poor gamble to make political gains. In fact, many of the fans of school vouchers are likely moderates who live in more liberal urban areas and thus do not swing much support toward Trump. And, all things considered, the religious school crowd may not be very pro-Trump, either: The controversial business tycoon has had a tumultuous relationship with the religious right.

Putting school choice on the national agenda is likely to be unsuccessful in helping Trump’s administration at all. At worst, the ensuing controversy could make an already tense month even more dismal for the embattled commander-in-chief. Opponents will have a field day when it comes to claiming that Trump and DeVos want to gut public school funding, pointing out DeVos’ comment that “throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution.”

After Monday, the White House will feel the sting when critics highlight the fact that Trump and his friends want to decimate civilian government spending.

DeVos’ speech will also have a less-receptive audience since it comes on the heels of a proposal to end federal student loan forgiveness for college graduates who work in the public or nonprofit sectors. If the public was already tepid on school vouchers, they will likely grow cold when they learn that the White House is trying to reduce the effectiveness of a popular incentive to go into government or nonprofit work. With Trump supporters already worried about the government civil service being out to damage the president, it’s probably a bad move to make that group even more displeased.

The fact that DeVos’ speech comes during final exam season, when most students’ and parents’ minds are firmly on school and education policy, is also a political blunder. As K-12 schools focus on getting through their final weeks, the timing is bad to bring up anything that would threaten the public school resources utilized by some ninety percent of American children. If you want to drop a controversial education policy speech, you might try the end of June, early October, or the end of February. With parents and students on edge, it is doubtful that Betsy DeVos can do anything but antagonize them further.

With DeVos as prone to foot-in-mouth syndrome as her appointer, it’s just a bad period, in general, to put her on the national podium. If Trump wants to unveil an initiative, he should put Tillerson or Mattis on the stump. Though they are not uncontroversial, they at least show experience and poise light years beyond what Betsy DeVos can muster. All DeVos will do Monday is put additional stresses on the GOP, risking driving rural, public-school-supporting Republicans away from Trumpism. 

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