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Donald Trump spoke about education in his inaugural address.

In his first remarks on education after being sworn into office, President Donald Trump asserted in his inaugural address Friday that the nation’s education system is “flush with cash” and that its children are being “deprived of all knowledge.”

Not deprived of some knowledge, or even most knowledge. But deprived of all knowledge.

It is impossible to dismiss what he said as a misstatement, or that it was an off-the-cuff comment made in the heat of a campaign speech. Inaugural addresses are written for posterity, and every word is mulled over, reviewed and approved by speechwriters and advisers. Trump also used a teleprompter, and read his speech flawlessly.

Education leaders in California interviewed by EdSource reacted strongly to Trump’s assertions, which they said were unfounded.

“Just like his nominee for secretary of education Betsy DeVos, our new president has confirmed in his inaugural remarks that he, too, knows nothing about public education in America,” said Carl Cohn, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a new state agency charged with assisting California schools to improve, and a former superintendent at Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified.

Trump’s remarks were consistent with GOP platforms over many decades, said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, based at Stanford University, the University of Southern California and University of California Davis.

“He is is simply restating something that many in his party have been saying for 30 years,” said Plank. “You can draw a straight line from the claim in A Nation at Risk in 1983 that ‘a rising tide of mediocrity threatens our very future as a nation and a people’  to the assertion that our education system ‘leaves our young and beautiful children deprived of all knowledge.”’

“Neither statement is true,” said Plank. “Both are intended to undermine political and financial support for public schools and the people who work in them, rather than to improve the educational opportunities available to America’s children.”

Some were left speechless by his remarks.

“It is hard to know what to say,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, who was just named the nation’s most influential university scholar in terms of impact on educational policy and practice.

Early in his address, Trump said, “Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.” These, he said, “are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.”

The assertion that schools are “flush with cash” will come as a surprise to most educators, parents, students and policymakers in California. While school funding has increased substantially during the two terms Gov. Jerry Brown has been in office, California ranks in the lower tier of states in per-student spending.

And the United States, in turn, lags many other developed countries of the world.

“America now spends less on education than most East Asian and European societies, our economic competitors,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.

He also noted that there have been improvements in academic performance. “Our children’s learning curves have grown steeper – slowly but surely – over the past four decades,” he said. While there is universal agreement that students in California and nationally on average must do better, the most recent long-term review of scores between 1971 and 2012 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s  report card,” showed that the trends are moving in the right direction. Nine- and 13-year-olds scored 8 to 25 points higher in reading and mathematics in 2012 than students their age in the early 1970s. Scores were less encouraging for 17-year-olds, with scores about the same.

The long-term NAEP review also pointed to some progress toward closing stubborn achievement gaps between white and Asian students and their black and Latino counterparts.

Scores released in 2015 showed a slight dip for the first time in decades, but did not point to students lacking “all knowledge.” As affirmed in the Every Student Succeeds Act approved overwhelmingly by Congress in 2015, there is now also bipartisan agreement not to focus exclusively on test scores as a way to measure school performance.

“The new president displays an alarming disinterest in evidence,” Fuller said. “Let’s hope this administration gets beyond inaccurate sound bites, and leads from basic knowledge about our schools and the diverse families that they serve.”

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, said Trump’s remarks were “consistent with his over-the-top rhetoric that he has been using throughout the campaign.”

“It’s very unpresidential,” Heins said, pointing out that his remarks came against a backdrop of Trump’s promoting a school choice plan that includes extending vouchers to underwrite private school tuition, including religious schools. “Instead of working to improve public education, he seems hell bent on destroying it.”

Trump’s questionable assertions in a speech of such magnitude disturbed Christopher Edley Jr., president of the Opportunity Institute in Berkeley and a professor at UC Berkeley’s law school.

“It certainly doesn’t help kids to model such monumental disregard for facts and stubborn refusal to learn them,” said Edley, who was an adviser to Hillary Clinton during her campaign. He said that the confirmation hearing for DeVos this week on Capitol Hill indicated that she “may also be infected with the same malady.”

“Perhaps the burdens of office will work a cure,” said Edley. “I urge everyone to pray for, but not in, our public schools.”

Marshall Smith, the former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and undersecretary of education in the administration of former President Bill Clinton, also worried about the lack of knowledge about the education system he said both Trump and DeVos have displayed.

Said Smith, “I would be happy to have both of them visit California, see some schools and spend a couple of hours with some people who do know something about the public schools.”

EdSource has sought comments from other education leaders representing diverse points of view and will update this report when they are received. 

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  1. Lynn 2 years ago2 years ago

    What about the “flush with cash” comment…?! How absolutely out of touch with reality can he be?!

  2. The Deplorable Miss B 2 years ago2 years ago

    We ARE flush with cash, however, once the "teacher leaders" who work at the Dept of Education level (both State and County) finish giving themselves raises and promoting their friends, the classroom teacher gets nothing. Go to www.transparentcalifornia.com to see what YOUR superintendent and top administrators make. More than the CEOs of companies and they are INCOMPETENT when it comes to making any kind of business decision. We are throwing money at … Read More

    We ARE flush with cash, however, once the “teacher leaders” who work at the Dept of Education level (both State and County) finish giving themselves raises and promoting their friends, the classroom teacher gets nothing. Go to http://www.transparentcalifornia.com to see what YOUR superintendent and top administrators make. More than the CEOs of companies and they are INCOMPETENT when it comes to making any kind of business decision. We are throwing money at a system that is full of more corruption that the government. Why do you think educators don’t want DeVos? Because they can’t B.S. her with their rhetoric.

  3. David Anderson 2 years ago2 years ago

    The Good Book says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Knowledge", which evidently is the basis for Trump's comment. Millions of people around the world, if not billions, know that bit of knowledge. It also says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, which is the reason I write: to suggest you think twice before taking on Trump and pretending to be superior to him. … Read More

    The Good Book says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Knowledge”, which evidently is the basis for Trump’s comment. Millions of people around the world, if not billions, know that bit of knowledge. It also says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, which is the reason I write: to suggest you think twice before taking on Trump and pretending to be superior to him. I’d say “Shape up or ship out!”

  4. CarolineSF 2 years ago2 years ago

    Pardon me if I'm being repetitive, but this is relevant here. The far-far-right edge of the "reform" sector opposes ALL public education and ALL public funding for education, and Betsy DeVos very much has a foot in that camp. It's obviously sharply at odds with charter and voucher advocates, who want their private/privatized schools publicly funded. The Cato Institute, for which the DeVoses provide funding, has a number of voices advocating "separation of school and … Read More

    Pardon me if I’m being repetitive, but this is relevant here. The far-far-right edge of the “reform” sector opposes ALL public education and ALL public funding for education, and Betsy DeVos very much has a foot in that camp. It’s obviously sharply at odds with charter and voucher advocates, who want their private/privatized schools publicly funded. The Cato Institute, for which the DeVoses provide funding, has a number of voices advocating “separation of school and state,” aka ending all public funding for education (and, of course, all compulsory education). If the press and political leaders knew more about the extreme edge of the “reform” sector, DeVos would surely be grilled about that, for what it would be worth. Meanwhile, watch out for grizzlies.

  5. Sayitok 2 years ago2 years ago

    Flush with cash, eh? The California School Boards Association has worked hard to demonstrate that California’s schools are not adequately funded: We need to do better and presidential misstatements won’t help.

  6. Ellen Weber 2 years ago2 years ago

    Points well taken here and the truth is – we can all learn more about what it really means to know something relevant. Government aside though, the question I’d like to see those of us who love education ask, "Why is Change so Hard?" Even in his day, Plato expressed concern that the new technology of writing would irrevocably change the process and advances of learning or leading, which involved more speaking or listening than … Read More

    Points well taken here and the truth is – we can all learn more about what it really means to know something relevant.

    Government aside though, the question I’d like to see those of us who love education ask, “Why is Change so Hard?”

    Even in his day, Plato expressed concern that the new technology of writing would irrevocably change the process and advances of learning or leading, which involved more speaking or listening than reading or writing.

    Today, new approaches to learning and leading with the brain in mind, in addition to more media influences pose similar challenges. Sir Ken Robinson sweeps history of both through animated illustrations of danger spots we’ve ignored so too many students lose out. It’s up to us to change in ways that keep up – so that students benefit, and we have a long way to go. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

    Let’s leap past political differences to tackle real challenges together and support more innovative leaders needed for the new era than facilitated in some secondary schools now. How so?

    Sadly, we still “deliver” facts (as if filling pails) in too many upper grades and yet we now know that learning comes more from “lighting fires.” Let’s look together at how we can run from lectures to engage students – http://www.brainleadersandlearners.com/ellen-weber/100-reasons-to-run-from-lectures/ as a map to new directions. Tools to engage in ways that light fires together with students, tend to follow such consideration – in spite of our political differences.

    Luckily trends, such as an emphasis on collaboration and individual choices –already offer some opportunities that work.

    In the many countries I work, I’ve seen progress only after we step past blame and pull together across differences – to seize new moments to support neuro-related reasons to run hard from lectures!

    Only when we innovate beyond our differences can we begin to lead growth for all students by building shared communities of passion from diverse talents as contributions to a shared vision.

    Luckily, we now know much more about how the human brain works when interest, commitment and passion for growth enter the leadership and learning mix. These are missing ingredients from political speeches, but still part of the wonders and woes of paradigm shifts from traditional to brain-powered leadership. The most common question we get here at the Mita International Brain Center?

    “Why is change from traditional to innovative so hard?” Why is progress difficult for some to embrace? More importantly, how could resources shift from people who guard status quo – to innovative leaders who sustain diverse communities of passion?”

    See any hope for tangible change our teachers, students and families crave, on the other side of polemics and missteps of leaders on both sides? Our students deserve a radical new way to approach problems with innovative solutions more in mind. They also love to participate in such a new direction! Count me in…