The White House’s War on Children

The welfare of children is not a priority for this administration

June 28, 2018

We've watched the Trump administration take aim at immigrant children by criminalizing and imprisoning them at the border and banning them because of their religion. Yesterday’s troubling Supreme Court decision -and the new precedent it set- poured even more fuel on the xenophobic fire. The administration has continued its attack on children by seeking to eviscerate our public education system, stripping civil rights protections and critical resources for students of all backgrounds, despite the First Lady of the United States declaring her policy platform as the children-focused “Be Best” initiative. The message is clear: whether they’re fleeing unlivable conditions for a chance at survival in our nation of immigrants, or they’ve been here for generations, the welfare of children is not a priority for this administration.

Earlier this month, despite universal opposition by civil rights groups, Ken Marcus was confirmed as head of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). OCR is the enforcement arm for all education-related discrimination cases, making Marcus’s appointment all the more troubling given his stated opposition to affirmative action, support for rescinding Title IX guidance on sexual assault, and willful conflation of “anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism” in a systematic effort to chill free speech.

Catherine Lhamon, former head of the office under President Obama and current chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights, describes OCR as a fulfillment of Congress’s promise to “every student in the nation, more than 60 years ago, that no student would suffer discrimination in schools that receive federal funds”. That promise is broken by the appointment of someone who disagrees with its fundamental premise by an administration that has sought to gut the already understaffed office, even as civil rights complaints have doubled. Meanwhile a new report from ProPublica  shows that OCR has already turned its back on over 1,200 civil rights cases and concludes that the Trump administration is “less likely than its predecessor to find wrongdoing by school districts on issues ranging from racial and sexual harassment to meeting educational needs of disabled students.”

In addition to its siege on civil rights, the Trump administration wants to slash other major programs that are critical to students. The Office of English-Language Acquisition (OELA), has become a particular target for President Trump and Secretary DeVos. OELA is responsible for supporting the estimated 5 million English-learners attending US public schools by providing policy guidance, managing grants for teachers, and generating research. DeVos has proposed folding the standalone office into another, eliminating the visibility of ELL issues and priorities.

In general, the Trump White House has made no secret of its disdain for the Department of Education and our lagging public school system. Last week, the administration formally proposed merging the departments of Education and Labor, in a move it classified as reducing waste and increasing efficiency. While this may sound reasonable on the face of it, dozens of critical offices and programs under both departments would necessarily be on the chopping block or stand to be drastically reduced in scope and priority. Given the administration’s track record of undercutting offices like OCR and OELA, as well as Secretary DeVos’s repeated preference for charter schools and other alternatives to public education, it’s doubtful that such cuts would be anything but detrimental to students.

Finally, as with all of President Trump’s policies, we should not regard his assault on education issues in isolation. This administration’s consistently xenophobic immigration policies, tolerance and ignoring of violent white supremacy, and continued failure to address the surge in hate crimes, all have major impacts on our students. Trump’s callous elimination of DACA has thrown into jeopardy the lives of thousands of young people who just want to pursue education in the only place they’ve ever known as home. Meanwhile, Trump’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on immigration has expanded to include thousands of highly-skilled immigrants whose visas are being heavily scrutinized even as needs for bilingual teachers skyrocket.

Just the fear of deportation, which the White House has intentionally stirred as actively as possible, has led to measurable negative impacts on school performance for all students -regardless of immigration status. For instance, a study from the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that 57.4% of teachers and school administrators surveyed reported increased absenteeism when students had concerns about immigration enforcement affecting them and their families. Many of these students depend on free/reduced lunches and the general stability that public schools offer, magnifying the destructive impact of their absenteeism due to fear.

As with its destructive immigration policies, we must continue to hold the administration’s feet to the fire when it comes to its lack of protection and support for our students. OCR has offices in states across the nation that are staffed by career civil servants, and we recommend proactively establishing relationships with your local offices. In the meantime, we will continue fighting the intersectional impact of all the White House’s policies that affect so many aspects of our daily lives.



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