President Donald Trump’s push to reopen America’s schools is about more than children’s education. It’s about the economy. And it’s about his reelection.
Because for Trump and his team, the issues are interlinked.
With children out of the house, they argue, parents can more easily return to work and juice the economy — something even the president’s allies consider a necessity for Trump to win reelection. And with Trump’s sagging poll numbers against presumptive 2020 rival Joe Biden, aides also hope the campaign for in-person schooling will play well with the female and suburban voters the president needs to remain in office.
But the push is also driving a furious response from teachers unions, parents and others in the education world who say they need more funding to reopen safely and that Trump’s political priorities will put children and educators in harm’s way.
“You know that somebody is looking for a better jobs report,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, who called Trump an “idiot” in a Wednesday call with reporters.
“He’s hoping some indicator goes up that people are going back to work,” García added, “and he is saying, ‘Sacrifice your children, sacrifice their teachers, sacrifice their families that they could infect, because I need something to sell in November.’”
Leslie Boggs, National PTA president, summed up the reaction: “Stop making public education a political issue.”
In recent days, Trump and his aides and allies have used speeches, social media and interviews to pressure schools and colleges to return to full, in-person education in the fall.
Trump has blamed Democrats for any hesitation from schools and political leaders, vowing to “put pressure” on reluctant governors on Tuesday. He even disavowed his own administration’s guidance on safely reopening Wednesday, arguing the measures were too strict and expensive.
Perhaps most tangibly, Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened to withhold funding from schools that don’t offer a full slate of in-person classes.
Vice President Mike Pence said the administration would work with Congress on the next coronavirus relief bill to give states “a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school.” And White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the administration was looking at ensuring any new relief money goes to students and not a district where schools are closed.
The White House — and Trump’s campaign — is eager for students to head back to class to allow parents, grappling with the difficulties of at-home learning and increased childcare responsibilities, to reenter the workforce.
“Parents can’t work if they are forced to stay home,” an outside Trump adviser said. “It’s about moving forward.”
Trump’s actions have drawn outrage from teachers unions, which say they want schools to reopen — if they have the resources to do so safely.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she is “flummoxed” that Trump and DeVos would be “starting fights, shaming governors who disagree with them politically, threatening to withhold funding.”
“All of this stuff that they’ve done in the last 24 hours is not only dangerous, much of it is illegal, and frankly, they’re scaring people in such a way that they may have just created a huge brain drain of teachers who may opt to not go back to school,” she said.
While Trump and his team say the public is behind their campaign, a combined 54 percent of American voters recently said they are somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with physically reopening K-12 schools at the beginning of the coming school year, according to the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.
A White House official acknowledged that the economy is part of the reason for Trump’s push but said the president is looking out for students’ health. A second White House official argued the administration has been thinking about this issue for months.
“The [coronavirus] task force has been working on the issue and the president has been discussing with governors for months,” the official said. The official pointed to prior guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“While they don’t fully reflect White House views, they offered parameters for states to start making reopening plans back in May,” the official noted.
Still, many state and local leaders have remained reluctant to fully reopen schools or take any actions that could exacerbate rising Covid-19 caseloads. Some school districts have already announced they will be returning with part-time or full-time distance learning. Outside Washington, D.C., in Fairfax County, Va., schools have suggested either fully virtual learning or part-time face-to-face instruction, a decision NBC Washington reported the county is reconsidering after DeVos slammed the model. And in New York City, schools will offer a mix of in-person classes and online learning in the fall.
The prospect could create an optics problem for Trump, who has linked in-person schooling to a recovering economy.
Trump had expected to campaign on a booming stock market and job growth. After that was wiped away by the pandemic, his advisers told him he had no choice but to focus his campaign on rebuilding the economy. While recent polls show Trump lagging behind Biden nationally and key 2020 swing states, the president still slightly outpolls Biden on economic issues.
“President Trump understands education is the single greatest equalizer in our society and that we need to get children back into the classroom so they do not fall behind and parents can return to work,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said.
Some allies also hope the campaign to reopen schools can help Trump win over some independent voters.
“Trump is pushing to reopen schools because it’s a major issue for working families,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of the drilling services company Canary LLC. “It goes to his economy focus. Working parents, regardless of political affiliation, cannot afford to be home-schooling, they have to go to work or lose their job. It’s a wedge issue that hits swing voters.”
The Biden campaign has criticized Trump for not providing schools the money and resources needed to open the schools safely. Campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said Biden only wants schools to bring students back if it can be done “in line with the recommendations of public health experts.”
The White House insists it is following the lead of America’s doctors. In talking points sent to surrogates this week, the White House cited the American Academy of Pediatrics reopening guidance that says “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” And on Tuesday, CDC Director Robert Redfield said his agency would issue more suggestions for reopening schools, even as Trump criticized the existing recommendations.
Yet those steps will take money — and lots of it. An analysis by school administrator group AASA and the Association of School Business Officials found that the average U.S. school district may need to spend an additional $1.8 million to reopen school buildings, given new expenses for health monitoring and cleaning, additional staffing, protective equipment and transportation. Dozens of prominent education groups are calling for $500 billion for state and local governments and at least $175 billion for K-12 education.
Congress has already approved $13 billion in K-12 emergency funds, and an upcoming bill could include billions more. But it’s unclear when lawmakers will move on their next relief measure.
The result, for now, is that school openings — like countless other issues in the Trump era — have become a partisan wedge issue.
“I think that the president’s tweets have given it away,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute education think tank. “It’s a straw man out there. The schools are going to open, the only question is whether kids are going to be invited to be there every day or not.”
Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.
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