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Can Trump Successfully Push Big Education Ideas Despite Political Turmoil?

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — May 22, 2017 7 min read
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President Donald Trump swept into office in January with grand visions of dramatically expanding school choice. And he picked an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who wanted to help him make it a reality. It looked like the biggest opportunity for choice in years.

That was, of course, before a swarm of very negative headlines concerning Trump, Russia, and the FBI, and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump and Trump associates’ ties to Russia. All of that controversy is cutting into Trump’s already sluggish popularity, and hurting his credibility on Capitol Hill.

We still don’t know what the political fallout will be for the Trump administration and the GOP-led Congress at this early stage. But what does it all mean for a big school choice push that he promised on the campaign trail and since taking office? It depends on who you ask.

For Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, the answer is: nothing good.

“His numbers are terrible and he’s hugely polarizing, so even before the last couple weeks you had an administration that was having real trouble” filling positions and selling its ideas, he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody on Capitol Hill that is going to take Trump’s budget seriously. Trump is tremendously damaged on Capitol Hill. ... The idea that any of these guys, for the foreseeable future, is going to say, ‘Wait a minute, the savvy Trump administration is rolling this out, we’ve gotta carry their water’ seems highly unlikly.”

What’s more, DeVos and her team aren’t likely to be able to make up for those problems, at least right now, Hess said.

“You’ve got a bunch of people at the department who aren’t given a ton of clarity of what they’re doing,” Hess said, pointing to a raft of still-unfilled political positions. “You don’t have a lot of political heft at the department. It’s not like a department where they are going to say, ‘Hey, the White House is embroiled, but we’ve got clear marching orders and a strong team, and we’re going to go off and run things.’”

However, AEI resident fellow Gerard Robinson, who served on Trump’s education transition team and as Florida’s schools chief, said several things will still work in favor of some kind of school choice expansion at the federal level.

He cited the continued growth of tax-credit scholarships and vouchers in states, as well the ongoing debates about and interest in choice among conservatives in Congress. And in contrast to Hess, Robinson highlighted DeVos’ experience leading the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, which he said has given DeVos unprecedented experience in private school choice for an education secretary.

“She’s walking in with built-in state knowledge. So that’s helpful for the narrative,” Robinson said. “Under this administration, it at least gives what I would call an executive link: ‘If you want to work with us, then we’re interested in working with you.’”

Popularity Contest

Trump’s budget does try to break significant new ground on school choice, through new grants and a voucher-focused initiative. And DeVos is likely to continue using the bully pulpit to promote choice—in fact, there’s a chance she could unveil at least the general outline of a school choice program in a speech Monday at an American Federation for Children gathering.

We already know that Trump’s budget proposal includes plans to expand public school choice, charter school funding, and use a research and innovation fund to study and promote vouchers. That’s separate from any action Congress could take. There are two main potential avenues in Congress for tax-credit scholarships, for example, although both present challenges.

From Robinson’s perspective, what’s also crucial for any successful federal school choice push by Trump and DeVos is for lawmakers to ensure any federal expansion is optional for states. And state and local leaders should be consulted by those in Washington to see how the feds can be most helpful, he added.

“I am not interested in a mandatory push,” Robinson said.

But there may come a point, Hess said, where state-level school choice advocates who have been “remarkably bipartisan” will have to ask themselves: “Do [we] really want our ideas being pushed by this administration?”

It’s worth pointing out that Trump’s two most immediate predecessors arguably got their biggest K-12 accomplishments done when their approval ratings were high not just in absolute terms, but high compared to their approval ratings at other times in their presidency. For both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush, those big-ticket items got done early in their tenures.

In Obama’s case, several of his signature education efforts like Race to the Top were either created or expanded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus, which Congress passed in 2009. Here’s a historical view of Obama’s approval ratings from Gallup:

Obama signed the stimulus into law on Feb. 17, 2009—as it happens, Gallup reported his approval rating on the exact same day at 62 percent. While it hovered in that statistical area for a few more months, it wouldn’t reach that level again for Obama after late 2009.

Meanwhile, Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act at the start of 2002, when he enjoyed unusually high approval ratings. Here’s a chart of Bush’s popularity from a historical perspective, again via Gallup:

Bush’s popularity ratings should include the caveat that his approval ratings spiked dramatically right after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, creating a unique political environment for the president. Still, as Bush’s education adviser Sandy Kress has told us, those attacks ended up actually accelerating efforts to get the No Child Left Behind Act over the finish line, due to a desire to score a bipartisan policy win in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere. And a lot of the work on NCLB had already been done in Congress throughout 2001, when Bush’s approval ratings consistently clocked in at over 50 percent before the attacks.

It’s also not uncommon, of course, for presidents to enjoy a honeymoon period in their popularity before circumstances become more difficult and more of the public sours on them.

On May 18, Gallup reported that 38 percent of those surveyed approved of Trump’s job performance, compared to 56 who disapproved.

Education Legislation in Context

The House education committee has passed two education-related bills easily since the start of the year. Both are reauthorizations, one for juvenile justice and one for career and technical education, and both sailed through the committee easily with bipartisan support. And the political landscape for expanding the scope of vouchers in the District of Columbia, the only federally funded private school choice program, still looks promising given the Republican control of Congress. But neither the House nor the Senate education committees have begun tackling legislation on issues with trickier politics, like student-data privacy or higher education.

At this juncture, Trump’s Republican counterparts in Congress are “just looking for an opportunity to pass something traditionally conservative,” said William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who studies federal education policy. But overhauls to health care and taxes, despite the challenges they face, “strike me as much more plausible candidates than some comprehensive education reform at the federal level,” Howell said.

And Robinson said that he didn’t think Republicans would be able to quietly tuck a school choice expansion into a larger piece of legislation without Democrats raising a ruckus. He added that much will depend on how Speaker of the House Paul Ryan handles any such plan.

While Trump and DeVos can focus on administration-driven competitive grants, the bully pulpit, and other narrower avenues for school choice, such work isn’t the stuff of legacy-making, sweeping education reform, Howell noted. Many conservatives might not mind, of course, if the administration steers clear of flashy education initiatives that could expand the federal impact on K-12. Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation, for example, has said she’s happy for the feds to back off big-time when it comes to their involvement in schools, even if that means staying away from a big school choice push.

Meanwhile, Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy, who served in the Education Department during President Bill Clinton’s tenure, noted that a Senate proposal similar to Trump’s campaign pitch was voted down in 2015. And in general, she was unflinching in her views of how Trump’s political woes will impact the issue.

“His brand by the day is getting more and more toxic,” Ferguson said. “With the specter of doubt coming down darker and darker over the Trump administration, I just don’t see how it happens.”

Photo: President Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., left, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hold cards received from the children in a 4th-grade class during a tour of St. Andrew Catholic School in March in Orlando, Fla.

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