Education activists contemplate life under Trump
Civil rights leaders who have been monitoring racial issues in the Hillsborough County Public Schools are calling for more grassroots activism as they brace for changes with the administration of Donald Trump.
At an informal meeting Wednesday at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, the consensus was that the federal government will become even less involved than it is now in ensuring equity in the public schools. By most descriptions, Donald Trump's choice of education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is more interested in pursuing a school choice agenda that favors private school vouchers and charter schools.
"I don't think we need to design our own gloom and doom," said Russell Meyer, the church's pastor and an activist in local progressive causes. But based on DeVos's background, he said, "we know that the name of the game is to shift money to private education, to pull out the best and the brightest, put them in charter school systems. And when you shift money over that way, that then means the most disadvantaged students in the urban cores will have even less resources. So what we are looking at is a bifurcation of education in America that is simply frightening."
It's even more alarming, he said, given a recent study that ranks Hillsborough County as one of the worst communities in the nation in terms of social mobility. "Education is the first rung on the ladder of social mobility, and you say the very people who need the resources the most in order to play the economic game of opportunity are going to have less? That then means the economic future for this county is in peril," Meyer said. "We already have a school board that can't find the money to put air conditioning in buildings."
Marilyn WiIliams, a retired educator who was at the meeting, has filed several discrimination complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The most extensive of them, which alleges racial discrimination in academic opportunities and discipline across the district, dates back to 2014. The federal agency asked for a large volume of data from the school district when it launched an investigation based on Williams' complaint. But, according to Williams, investigators have yet to visit the district's schools. The school district, in the meantime, drafted what it hopes will be a consent agreement, listing steps Hillsborough has taken to improve outcomes for minority students.
Officials at the OCR do not speak with reporters, so all information about the project has come through Williams. "I found out one of the reasons why it has taken so long to deal with the complaint is that first of all it's a systemic complaint, and they're understaffed with attorneys," Williams said Wednesday.
With a change in administration, "I have no fantasy of the legal department improving in terms of the level of people that are hired." Williams said. She agreed with Russell that "we should not fall back on doom and gloom."
Williams said she is taking her inspiration from the progress protesters have made in combatting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would affect tribal land in North Dakota. "What really gave me hope was when veterans stood in front of the indigenous folks," she said. "I'm concerned that unless a miracle happens, all the civil rights offices, the federal offices, are going to be impacted by Donald Trump's election. But that doesn't mean that we don't fight on the community level."
Meyer said it is important to keep in mind that there were numerous Democratic victories this year. He named a spate of State Attorney upsets including Andrew Warren's win over incumbent Mark Ober in Hillsborough County.
"In various ways there's been grassroots organizing, democratic mobilization as kind of a fifth column saying, 'we're not simply leaving it up to the elected officials," Meyer said. "I think we're going to see more of that, not less. You have not seen after any presidential election so many spontaneous protests that are going on in every major city, constantly. Maybe the OCR goes away."
But even when the agency issues a directive, he said, it's incumbent on the local community to make sure it is carried out. "It never gets enforced," he said. "What we need, no matter what, is mobilization."