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Trump’s vision of education begins and ends with schools being bad

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President Trump’s verdict on American schools in his inaugural address Friday was harsh: America, he said, has “an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

That’s typical for Trump, who’s used startlingly bleak language to describe schools and education in the US. And his facts often aren’t wrong. The United States really does spend much more per student than most developed countries, only to see disappointing results in return — something plenty of presidents have pointed out.

But Trump’s unapologetically negative portrait of American schools is striking because it’s seemingly all he has to say about education. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush didn’t hesitate to use harsh words to criticize “failing schools.” But they usually deployed those descriptions in service of a broader vision for improving them. For Trump, struggling schools aren’t a warmup act for a policy proposal. They’re rhetorical props in his description of a burned-out American landscape.

Trump’s facts aren’t off by much

Saying American schools are “flush with cash” and students are “deprived of all knowledge” is quite a rhetorical flourish. But it’s true that the United States spends quite a bit, relatively speaking, on education, and test results are fairly disappointing.

Just three developed countries — Norway, Switzerland, and Luxembourg — spend more per elementary school student. Five — Austria, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, and Luxembourg — spend more per high school student, according to the OECD.

The spending gap exists for a few reasons:

  • The US spends less on social programs (relative to GDP) than many other countries, and schools pick up some of the slack. Direct grants to families with poor children to lift them out of poverty don’t count as “education” spending, but money spent to educate poor children does.
  • The US has a higher share of students with special needs than other countries, and educates a higher proportion of those children in regular classrooms.
  • American teachers’ salaries are low relative to what well-educated workers in make in the US. But teachers in the US are paid more than the international average salary for teachers in developed countries.

Meanwhile, tests that try to measure how American students stack up to their peers show that the US is far from No. 1. On the Program for International Student Assessment, standardized tests administered in 72 countries in 2015, American 15-year-olds scored as average in science and reading and were below average in math. Another test with different methodology found American students fared better but still scored below Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Russia.

None of this is new. The insufficiency of American schools has been a political target at least since the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, leading Life magazine to bemoan that “the schools are in terrible shape” in the US. Trump isn’t different because he’s critical — he’s different due to what he says next.

Trump isn’t criticizing schools because he wants to improve them

Bush Attends Republican National Committee Gala
“Rarely is the question asked, ‘Is our children learning?’” was a signature Bushism. But at least he asked.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

When Clinton, Bush, or Obama talked about failing schools, they usually would pivot into what they were going to do to change the situation, plans that fit into their bigger visions for where American society should go.

Trump just moves on to the next item on the list of things that are broken in America, as he did in his inaugural address: after failing schools came “the crime and the gangs and the drugs.”

Bush, in his Republican National Convention acceptance speech in 2000, depicted a nation where “millions are trapped in schools where violence is common and learning is rare.” But his larger point, part of his emphasis on “compassionate conservatism,” was that adults were failing children: They “were given the gift of the best education in American history” and “do not share that gift with everyone.” He followed it up with a multi-point plan to improve schools, some of which became No Child Left Behind.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama occasionally used “crumbling schools” as Trump does, to paint a picture of why his candidacy and presidency were crucial. (There’s a big difference, though, between a school that’s physically falling apart and a school “flush with cash” where children learn nothing.) But throughout his presidency, his primary criticisms of education were economic. He emphasized American students’ test results as an economic crisis — “the countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Bush and Obama didn’t just make these points in the rare speech solely devoted to education. They were routinely incorporated into their broader policy platforms — and this is where Trump’s rhetoric diverges.

Throughout the campaign and transition, Trump was virtually silent on education. When he mentioned education policy, it was to make two points: Common Core is bad, and school choice is good. (Teachers themselves were also good, while teachers unions were bad.) His big education speech in September, dedicated to promoting vouchers, echoed his inaugural address, depicting poor schools, crime, and unemployment as a plague on American cities — and his solution was for kids to get out of those schools and go to private school instead.

There’s been no hint that education writ large is part of Trump’s bigger vision for America, or that schools are anything other than one more box to check on a long list of issues the president is supposed to care about.

Trump doesn’t routinely frame educational failure as a matter of social justice, as Bush did (“the soft bigotry of low expectations”), or a roadblock to economic opportunity, like Obama. He spoke at schools occasionally on the campaign trail, but never talked about what he’d seen or how it had affected him. He didn’t even resort to the perfunctory political move of praising teachers who had made a difference in his own life.

The beginning and end of the story, for Trump, is that American schools are broken because America is broken. And the ultimate cure for American brokenness is to elect Trump, who will make the country great again. That’s why Trump’s rhetoric, in his inaugural speech and elsewhere, sounds so bleak. It’s not that he’s willing to castigate American schools for their failures. It’s that he’s seemingly unable to say anything else.

Watch: President Trump's inaugural address