What American Greatness Means: The Presidential Election and Dual Language Learners

Is there room for dual language learners in the new administration's vision for the country?

And then, at last, the whole unwieldy campaign flipped, stumbled, turned, and ground to a halt amidst the foggy haze of post-mortem electoral coverage.

Yes, it’s finally over. The 2016 election is filed and finished. All the new cards are in the political deck, the shuffling has been finished, and the dealing is done. While education was broadly ignored on the 2016 campaign trail, it will be a significant part of various local, state, and federal governing agendas. So, as the gamesmanship restarts, it’s time to review how the elections will affect dual language learners (DLLs).

At the federal level, the election results produced little clarity. Incoming president Donald Trump did not address DLLs directly and only touched on federal education policy in passing. Here in the Beltway, in the “swamp” he has vowed to “drain,” the early chatter is that Trump may not quite follow through on his pledge to close the U.S. Department of Education. However, Politico’s education team reports that Trump’s team hopes to ax the department’s Office of Civil Rights and dramatically reduce federal oversight of how states spend federal education dollars.

When it comes to decreasing the federal role in education, the new administration shouldn’t run into much trouble from Congress. Indeed, since passing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at the end of 2015, Congress has sustained a simmering disagreement over how much authority ESSA retains for the U.S. Department of Education. Given that Republicans retained control of both houses, there is little reason to believe that they will offer serious resistance to any Trump Administration decentralization efforts. So: it’s likely that Trump’s Department of Education will walk back, water down, or ignore many of the Obama Administration’s ESSA regulations on civil rights and school accountability. There will be some limits on this. Any major legislative changes would have to hurdle a 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate, meaning that major Trump proposals would need all 52 Republican votes, as well as securing support from eight Democratic senators. (Note: there is no guarantee that the filibuster will remain in place.) Still, ESSA is vague enough that the new administration will have ample room to abandon much of its accountability provisions without engaging Congress. 

But this is all general. What about DLLs? It would be easier to write something guarded, one of those impotently-vague truisms, something like, “it seems probable that DLLs are unlikely to be a priority for the Trump Administration, provided that political winds stay constant.” But that would miss the forest for the trees and badly misstate the new political context shaping DLLs’ educations.

Here’s what I mean: education is a unique policy area. Unlike, say, international affairs or environmental regulations, education is intimately involved in the shaping and forming of our shared society. We build our communities and their patterns of behavior through our education system. As such, education policymaking is always tinkering with the complicated processes of replicating our culture down to the next generation. That means that new education policies are always implicitly about signalling what sort of country we are today while also determining what sort of a country we’re trying to build in the future. American philosopher John Dewey put it this way: “unless education has some frame of reference it is bound to be aimless, lacking a unified objective.”

This is a cross-partisan sentiment. Education policymakers of all stripes link their thinking on schools to their thinking on U.S. society — or, to say it grander, their proposed reforms sketch the shape of an America yet-to-come. Since the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk, business-minded conservatives have devoted themselves to education policies that will create “a 21st century workforce that can compete in the global economy.” Progressives dreaming of a more plural, diverse civil society ground that multicultural future in schools. And so on and so forth.

And that brings us back to DLLs. Like many successful presidential candidates, Trump’s campaign was anchored in a broader vision for the United States’ future. His particular vision served as grounding for a series of positions that are deeply hostile to DLLs and their families. Critically, he promised a restoration of American greatness, one that he frequently defined in terms of attacking and overcoming groups of people he described as threats.

First, Trump’s campaign began with astonishing stereotypes about Mexican immigrants, who make up a large plurality of English-learning newcomers in the United States. He has vowed to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall to seal the border between Mexico and the United States. While large majorities of the country’s DLLs are native-born Americans, many have parents, family members, and/or caregivers who are undocumented.

Second, Trump proposed prohibiting Muslims from entering the country and promised to require Muslims already living here to register their faith with the federal government. Muslims make up nearly half of this year’s refugee population. Many Muslim students come from Arabic-speaking countries: Arabic is one of the fastest-growing languages amongst U.S. DLLs.

Third, Trump’s vision catalyzed a veritable explosion of ethnic nationalism into the American public sphere. Former Ku Klux Klan leader (and prominent Trump supporter) David Duke put it this way, “He’s made it OK to talk about these incredible concerns of European Americans today, because I think European Americans know they are the only group that can’t defend their own essential interests and their point of view.” Further, Trump’s ad hominem attacks on an American-born judge of Mexican heritage suggest that he holds an “essentialist” view of culture and ethnicity — that is, that the judge’s ancestry fundamentally determines how he discharges his duties within the United States’ judicial system.

Finally, Trump has repeatedly cast refugee families as a danger to the United States’ safety and economic well-being. Refugee children frequently speak non-English languages as their native tongues, and bring a host of additional challenges to school

These are the pieces of President-elect Trump’s vision for the United States, and they are plainly hostile to DLLs, immigrant families, and cultural pluralism. He has sounded some conciliatory notes in the days since the election, but there is a path dependency to these things. His governing agenda for education will inevitably be shaped by the “frame of reference” he forged in the heat of the campaign — not least because of the emotional tenor of his nationalist, populist rhetoric.

Indeed, the effects of Trump’s new vision of American greatness are already visible in U.S. schools. Diverse groups of students are being threatened with violence and hate speech in schools across the country. We have limited evidence that Trump is interested in focusing federal attention on underserved students in general. Furthermore, there is little room for optimism to be found in his campaign’s hostility to immigrants in general, refugees in particular, and multiculturalism in concept and in fact. So: it is difficult to imagine how the end of this campaign could serve as a foundation — let alone a springboard — for significant new federal attention to DLLs’ needs, let alone corresponding improvements in how they are educated. 

It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

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This post was written by Conor P. Williams, founder of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group. You can find him on Twitter at @ConorPWilliams. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.” 

Author:

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.