I am not the first to say this, but it bears repeating: Schools do not exist in vacuums. Rather, schools reflect the broader cultural and political contexts of the societies in which they are situated.
The inequities that exist in our society manifest in our school systems. Education issues are not limited to what the state or federal education departments do, nor are education issues the unique business of local school boards. Every decision made from every elected and appointed official is an education decision.
Betsy DeVos’ confirmation made history in that it was the first time a vice president had to break a Senate tie for a Cabinet appointment. Yet the noise around DeVos, while warranted, misses a broader point about education policy: All political issues are education issues.
Attorney General Jeff Session’s nativist assault on undocumented families and transgender students is as dangerous as DeVos’ curtailing of the Obama administration’s campus sexual assault reform. Yet the constraints on the U.S. Department of Education limit the education secretary’s power in a manner that is nonexistent for the Justice Department.
Consider this: It was widely reported that DeVos was uncomfortable rescinding protections for transgender students, but Sessions forcefully supported the move. This is not to absolve DeVos of wrongdoing; her time as secretary has been marked by a lack of fundamental knowledge of education and a theocratic vision of public schools. But her ability to achieves those goal is limited due to the nature of the department. Conversely, Sessions’ Justice Department has full range to enact an agenda that induces real harm to myriad marginalized students.
Years of research has shown that LGBTQ students already face discrimination at schools. These students do not feel dignity or safety when the power of the federal government is used to denigrate their identities as it has done with the decision to curtail transgender students’ rights, ignore LGBTQ population information on the Census, and erase the historical contributions of LGBTQ Americans during Pride Month, among other discriminatory acts. Furthermore, students cannot learn academic content when they are living in fear of immigration agents raiding their schools.
We need to revise our current positioning of education issues. Let’s stop labeling topics like teacher evaluations as “education issues” while calling LGBTQ rights “social issues” and access to health care “domestic issues.” That framing ignores how all policy ends up manifesting in schools. One way to reframe our political commentary could be priming all analysis with the question: “How does this policy or decision impact students, teachers and their communities?”
Which leads us to the summer’s biggest political fight: health care. Regardless of your feelings about the Affordable Care Act, to ignore its impact on schools would be a mistake. Thanks to reams and reams of social science, we know that lack of access to health care, social services and food does more to limit students’ academic success than any other factor.
The evisceration of Medicaid is one reason the National Education Association came out against the House and Senate health care bills. The Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid bolsters the services school-based health care providers were able to deliver to students and their families. We do not do enough to frame health care as an education issue.
The connection between policy and schools has been vocalized by some of our most notable political leaders, many of whom were teachers before pursuing elected office. Trailblazer Shirley Chisolm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress and run for the presidency, was a primary teacher and eventually a nursery school director. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, was a high school teacher. Milk began his political career by defeating a bill that would have banned gay people from teaching.
Before entering Congress and eventually the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson was a teacher. Indeed, President Johnson noted his own experiences as a teacher as a key reason he supported the Higher Education Act of 1965. Schools have been — and always will be — political institutions governed and influenced by the same policy mechanisms as other tax-funded institutions.
So, let us elevate our dialogue about schools and education policy. Every single issue debated and voted on has an impact on students, teachers and their communities. You are always voting for schools, teachers, parents, caretakers and, most importantly, students, when you cast your ballot.
— Cody Miller is a doctoral student in English education at the University of Florida College of Education.