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Donald Trump Promotes School Choice, Bashes ‘Bureaucrats’ in Speech

By Alyson Klein — July 21, 2016 5 min read
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Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump gave a shout-out to a long-treasured GOP priority, school choice, in his nomination acceptance speech here Thursday, and in a section on education attacked a long-time party boogeyman, “bureaucrats.”

“We will rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice,” Trump told delegates on the final night of the Republican National Convention. “My opponent would rather protect bureaucrats than serve American children.”

But anyone who wanted policy details about where Trump stood on education before the convention kicked off on Monday was just as in the dark when the balloons hit the floor four days later.

Overall, Trump’s speech was light on policy and the specifics of governing, as were most of the addresses here in Cleveland this week. To the extent that big issues were discussed, national security and immigration far eclipsed education.

However, Trump may soon be addressing a new policy area: child care. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, a mother of three, told the audience that she’d be working alongside her father on the issue, but she didn’t offer specifics. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who is to formally accept her party’s nomination at its convention in Philadelphia next week, has made access to child care a signature of her campaign—and career. Early on in the race, Clinton unveiled a plan to move toward universal prekindergarten.

Over the course of the week, a smattering of speakers, including Trump’s vice-presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and the nominee’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., checked the education box, sprinkling praise for school choice into their speeches. But no one offered anything resembling specifics.

“A lot of the rhetoric is very similar” to the 2012 and 2008 conventions, said Marty West, a Harvard professor who worked on education policy proposals for two previous GOP presidential nominees, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain. “At any Republican convention, you’re going to hear a lot about the virtues of school choice and local control. The biggest difference [this time] is that there is little to point to beyond the rhetoric. “

By the time they accepted the GOP nod, though, Romney and McCain had each given at least one major speech on K-12 and put out policy documents outlining a roadmap for bringing more options to parents, West noted. And because both had held elected office for years, they each had a record to draw from. Romney, in particular, had a long edu-resume.

Trump, on the other hand, has never been a policymaker, so there’s no such record to look at. And he has yet to expound on his K-12 policy vision. In fact, Trump’s campaign website doesn’t include a section on education, noted Jonathan Hayes a college student and alternate delegate from Pennsylvania.

In fact, plenty of the party faithful who showed up in Cleveland to nominate Trump readily admit they don’t know where his heart is on K-12 policy.

“There’s not a lot of definitive information, he just says he wants to improve education but that’s pretty nebulous,” said Carol Hanson, an Iowa delegate and special education teacher from Cedar Falls.

But she was pleased by some of what she heard this week. “School choice is a great idea because it would empower parents to make decisions for their family and it’s closer to local control,” she said. “I would support Donald Trump in any way he would promote school choice.”

And others say, that, at the very least, they trust Trump to handle education far more than Clinton, who Democrats will formally nominate at their convention in Philadelphia next week.

“The main idea that I support that Mr. Trump has said is that education is better handled at the local level,” said Molly Spearman, South Carolina’s elected state chief in an interview this week.

And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee who endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary, said in an interview here earlier this week that Trump assured him when the nominee met with GOP senators earlier this summer that he would respect the local control focus of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act.

Some delegates and lawmakers say the choice of Pence in the number two slot has helped ease their minds when it comes to K-12 policy. Pence has sought—and gotten —more resources for charter schools in the Hoosier State, and convinced lawmakers to lift a cap on elementary school vouchers. And in 2014, under Pence, Indiana became the first state to officially ditch the Common Core State Standards..

“That was probably the best choice he could make,” said Hanson, who feels the common core was developed without input from teachers and forced on states by the Obama administration. (Indiana’s replacement standards, however, are much too close to common core for her taste.)

Meanwhile, the prospect of an early childhood initiative raised by Ivanka Trump appealed to Kathy Henry, an Ohio delegate. “I was really pleased with that. I worked in a factory for 32 years and it cost a lot of money” to cover childcare for my children, she said.

But Paulette Rakestraw, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives who once served on a school board, offered a word of caution. “Liberals say we need to them get earlier,” she said. But in her view the answer isn’t “sticking them in [the] public school that’s failing them in the first place, for a longer period of time.” If Trump moves forward on early childhood education, she said, she’s hoping he explores private, not public, options.

James Stroman, a member of the South Carolina state board of education who watched Trump’s speech from the convention floor, said Trump sent a “good message” on education.

And he didn’t think that the candidate was targeting strong educators in any way when he mentioned bureaucrats. Rather, Stroman said, Trump’s remarks bolstered his view that too many people were making decisions about education who had never taught in classrooms.

“You ask any teacher, they can solve the education problems,” Stroman said.

Even though Trump hasn’t released a point-by-point plan on K-12 policy, he has made it clear that he’d consider scrapping—or scaling back—the U.S. Department of Education and would put an end to common core, even though ESSA prohibits the federal government from monkeying around with state standards. More on his past policy positions, and how they compare to Clinton’s, here.

Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.

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Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.