Public school teachers worry for their profession under a Trump presidency

The president-elect has called teachers “stupid.”

CREDIT: iStockPhoto
CREDIT: iStockPhoto

President-elect Donald Trump once called teachers “stupid” and sharply criticized teachers unions. Members of his family have minimized sexual harassment and suggested that teaching kindergarten would be a good job for someone who does not “belong in the workforce.” Now he is preparing to take over the U.S. Department of Education, and many teachers are worried about the consequences for their jobs.

Throughout his campaign, Trump offered scant details on how he would try to steer federal education policy. But he has hinted that major cuts could be coming to the Department of Education, and he has a long track record of making dismissive or demeaning comments about teachers.

Trump said teachers had very little intelligence in a 1997 legal deposition.

“I assumed that the people essentially teaching the kids were not stupid. They turned out to be very stupid,” Trump said.

He also wrote in The Art of The Deal that he once hit his music teacher for “not knowing anything about music.” In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he suggested that teachers unions are harmful to the public education system. He wrote:

Defenders of the status quo insist that parental choice means the end of public schools. Let’s look at the facts. Right now, nine of ten children attend public schools. … When teachers’ unions say even the most minuscule program allowing school choice is a mortal threat, they’re saying: If we aren’t allowed to keep 90% of the market, we can’t survive.

His son Donald Trump, Jr. echoed his father’s comments last summer and said Democrats care more about saving teachers’ jobs than they do about providing students a good education. During a a 2013 appearance on the radio show Opie and Anthony, Trump, Jr. also suggested that teaching kindergarten was a job for women who weren’t tough enough to deal with sexual harassment in other workplaces.

“If you can’t handle some of the basic stuff that’s become a problem in the workforce today, then you don’t belong in the workforce. Like, you should go maybe teach kindergarten,” Trump, Jr. said.

His remarks implied that kindergarten teachers don’t get harassed, that women should just learn to live with sexual harassment in the workplace, and that being a kindergarten teacher is not a real job, Madeline Will wrote in Education Week.

Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, said he is worried about how the Trump administration will affect the teaching profession, given the fact that Trump has a poor record of working with both unions and women. Seventy-six percent of public school teachers are women.

“Even though Trump talks forcefully about building infrastructure, he also leaves a legacy of minimizing, if not decimating, union work around him,” Vilson said. “Given Trump’s record with workers and women, he probably wouldn’t want to lavish teachers with larger salaries either.”

Vilson also said Trump’s support of school vouchers doesn’t bode well for any growth in the prestige of public school teachers.

This would be a significant change from the increasingly positive attitude about teachers coming from the White House. Although the Obama administration has clashed with teachers unions in the past over issues like accountability measures, such as models for teacher evaluations, and standardized testing, over the last year it has made significant efforts to boost working conditions in the industry.

After John King stepped into the role of acting education secretary last fall (he was officially confirmed in March), he has paid considerably more attention to the effects of poverty, trauma, and school discipline on students’ experiences in schools. Under his guidance, the Department of Education released guidance to schools on how administrators and teachers should respond to these issues; it has also hosted forums for educators and other experts to discuss solutions.

The department also launched an initiative designed to improve the teaching profession. In February, the department pitched a $1 billion plan to increase pay, create better working conditions, and improve professional development for teachers. The competitive grant program is called “The Best Job in the World.”

Given Trump’s statements about teachers, it’s unclear if the Best Jobs in The World program would remain in place. State lawmakers could also be influenced by Trump’s anti-teacher rhetoric and decide not to pursue teacher pay raises or other reforms that would improve working conditions for teachers.

Under Trump’s school voucher plan, the work of public school teachers would be devalued further, said Vilson.

“Respect and prestige would most likely get worse,” Vilson said.

The message Trump is sending public school teachers through the voucher plan is clear: The public school system doesn’t deserve any more support.