A Return to Separate and Unequal: Education Equity is at Stake in the 2018 Elections

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Education Department has been threatened with massive budget cuts, faced repeated risk of wholesale elimination and suffered many smaller blows adding up to significant injury— and students are feeling the pain.

“Our nation’s elementary and secondary education systems are falling behind the rest of the world,” asserts the White House website on its education page. However, rather than bolster public education and adequately support teachers and schools, the administration’s initiatives push so-called school choice, or vouchers, as a panacea for struggling districts.

These programs allow parents to choose to send their children to private schools, which then, in turn, receive the funding that would previously have been reserved for public institutions. While vouchers may be beneficial on a limited basis for rural students with few school options, studies show that vouchers divert necessary resources from public education into private and religious schools, further disadvantaging many students. According to the National Education Association, these “privatization strategies are about subsidizing tuition for students in private schools, not expanding opportunities for low-income children.”

Organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) have expressed concern about the link between school vouchers and racial segregation, with president Sherrilyn Ifill warning that “the danger of abandoning our public schools to greater segregation has only grown. We must not fail black and brown students by refusing to heed what we already know: that separate is inherently unequal.”

Ironically, the same administration advocating “school choice” has been attempting to dismantle choice on another level: the ability of colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in their admissions process to counter systematic racial prejudice. In July, the Education and Justice departments retracted Obama-era policies on affirmative action, and instead “strongly encourage” schools to no longer consider race as a factor in admissions. However, “[r]ace and gender stereotypes, which are often intertwined and continue to be pervasive in colleges and universities, require affirmative action to be deployed to break down these barriers,” warns the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “Women— especially women of color—are more likely to succeed in schools that promote diversity.”

In all likelihood, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, if confirmed, will provide the fifth vote to overturn affirmative action. Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose retirement has created the vacancy on the court, was the swing vote preserving the ability of public colleges and universities to take race into account as one factor in admissions decisions. Perhaps even more troubling is the precedent set by the refusal of recent federal district and appeals court nominees to acknowledge the importance of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (desegregating schools in 1954) in their Senate hearings.

Still more policy proposals under the current administration withdraw essential protections for students, particularly women, on myriad levels—with the promise of greater losses to come. Galvanized by these threats to the core of our education system, advocates like the LDF and NWLC have spoken out against damaging policies and cuts, and are actively working to bolster education against further attack. This past spring, more than 130,000 teachers and their allies took to the streets to demand increased school funding and higher salaries for educators and staff. In some states, legislators responded with new budgets and pay raises.

For many young voters, particularly first-timers who have recently graduated high school or are in their first few years of college, education is a particularly salient issue in the midterm elections. Polls show that young people, especially young women, are voting in higher numbers now than in the recent past. Their voices must be heard in a national discussion around how we educate children and young adults.


Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.