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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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What Would a President Trump Mean for Education?

By Rick Hess — February 29, 2016 4 min read
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Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been asked with increasing frequency what it would mean for education if Donald Trump actually won the presidency. (The question is usually asked with equal parts foreboding and disbelief.) I’ll swallow my nausea and just try to offer a few thoughts. First, does Trump have a serious chance of winning the election? At the moment, while anything could still happen, he’s the favorite to win the Republican nomination. If Trump does claim the nomination, the RealClearPolitics average has him currently trailing Clinton by less than three points. That means, however disconcerting it may be, that there’s a real chance that Donald Trump could be the next president.

If Trump were to win, what might it mean for education? Here are five thoughts.

Personalities will matter more than policy. Trump gives no indication he’s thought deeply about policy or has any especially strong convictions. As former president Jimmy Carter told Britain’s House of Lords, “Trump has proven already that he’s completely malleable. I don’t think he has any fixed opinions that he would really go to the White House and fight for.” Trump appears far more intrigued by personalities than by policy proposals, suggesting that his education agenda would be largely a product of which education persona happened to catch his fancy. Given that Trump seems to favor big, public personalities or individuals he’s met through his commercial activities, I tend to think he’d wind up latching onto a colorful character he encountered in New York circles, was turned onto by friend, or spotted on CNN. Who that might turn out to be is anybody’s guess.

Probably not a conservative agenda. In addition to lacking any obvious ideological guiderails, Trump is at daggers drawn with prominent conservative thinkers and think tanks. Contrary to the notion I’ve heard from some educators that Trump is a frighteningly ardent conservative, the truth is that he has mocked conservative thinking on 9/11, entitlements, Planned Parenthood, and much more. There’s no reason to expect he’d suddenly be interested in hearing what scholars or policy wonks at traditional conservative outfits would have to say. Who he might listen to, which policies he might embrace, and how seriously he might embrace them is truly anyone’s guess.

Don’t take his pronouncements at face value. There’s no reason to believe that Trump necessarily means what he’s said on any issue. In truth, he seems to regard policy declarations as performance art. He’s said that he would “outlaw” the Common Core, but it’s not at all clear he knows what the Common Core is or how he’d try to do that. He’s said that he would slash the U.S. Department of Education, but he’s also the only Republican to reject overhauling Social Security or Medicare—and it’s hard to see how someone who refused to touch entitlements would be eager to slash funds for low-income student, children with special needs, or Pell Grants (which together comprise most of the Department of Education’s budget). As the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza put it the other day, Trump is noteworthy for his “remarkable unpredictability and seeming willingness to say things for the sake of shock value.”

Today’s view may not be tomorrow’s. Even if Trump suggests that he really means something, much of what he says is broad, contradictory, or comes with an expiration date. Remember, after the 2012 election (in which he backed Mitt Romney), he attacked Romney for being too harsh on illegal immigration. Trump has been all over the place on abortion, health care reform, and taxes, and there’s no particular reason to think that his recent proclamations are sincere or heartfelt. Whatever he said yesterday may very well change before the election, or before he took office. If Trump is the nominee, he could be a very different candidate in the general election than he’s been in the primary. As Trump told Brett Baier, “I will be changing very rapidly. I’m capable of changing to anything I want to change to.” Hell, he could wind up running to Clinton’s left on some issues—anything is possible.

The “experts” are just making stuff up. You will see and hear people claim they know what Trump is going to do. After all, that’s how people get their op-eds published, keep their pundit gigs, and stay relevant. But these are the same people who insisted for eight months that Trump was a joke. None of them can offer real insight into Trump’s policy agenda, mostly because Trump doesn’t really have a policy agenda. Nobody knows which Trump might show up for the general election or what a President Trump might attempt. Equally important, we don’t know what the next Congress would look like, how Republicans would view a President Trump, how he’d seek to work with the House and Senate, or how any of this would shake out. In any event, it seems unlikely that education would garner much attention under a President Trump—but even that is just a blind guess.

One reason that Trump makes political veterans observers so nervous is that he could very well be elected President of the United States, and yet no one has any idea of what he’d attempt to do in office. So, what would a President Trump mean for education? I have no idea. And neither does anyone else.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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