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Donald Trump’s First Speech to Congress and Education: Four Things to Watch

By Alyson Klein — February 27, 2017 3 min read
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President Donald Trump is slated to give his first big speech to Congress Tuesday. Because this is his first year in office, it’s not technically a State of the Union address. (Think of it as a pseudo-SOTU in Beltway-speak).

The speech could give the country a glimpse of education’s place in Trump’s presidency—or it could send a signal that education won’t be a major focus.

Here are four things to watch for:

Does education come up at all?

Back in 2009, President Barack Obama made education a big theme of a similar speech in his first big speech to Congres and ended up laying out a lot of the proposals—and goals—that defined his presidency on the issue. He talked about how three-quarters of the country’s fastest-growing jobs require education beyond high school, but noted that only about half of the country had attained that level of education. He set a goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020, which he referred to again, and again, over the course of his presidency.

There’s no guarantee that Trump will do something similar. He didn’t talk much about education on the campaign trail. And he wasn’t very close to his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, before naming her to his cabinet. But Trump did talk about education in his inaugural address, saying the nation has an education system that is “flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” And, last week, his administration made its first big policy move on K-12, rescinding the Obama administration’s guidance that said transgender students can use the bathrooom that matches their gender identity.

UPDATE: Trump will talk about K-12, according to talking points distributed in advance of the speech. He’s slated to say that all children should have access to a great education, and could pinpoint solutions to help kids get out of struggling schools, according to his press secretary Sean Spicer. But it’s unclear if he will offer any policy specifics.

What will Trump say about career and technical education?

Trump got a ton of support from working-class voters, in areas of the country that are trying to revive a struggling manufacturing sector and pinpoint pathways for students who may not want to pursue a traditional, four-year college degree.

Plus, Congress has already started working on a reauthorization of federal vocational programs. So far the legislation has broad bipartisan support in the House, which passed it last year. (It died in the Senate.) And the House education committee is holding a hearing on career and technical education on Tuesday, the same day as Trump’s big speech. If Trump gives the issue a high-profile mention, he could get himself some credit for helping to move on something that’s already got a lot of momentum and bipartisan support—and is really important to his base.

What about early-childhood education?

Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, pushed her father to release a campaign proposal on expanding access to child care that relied largely on tax credits. And there have been reports that she’s still working behind the scenes on this issue. Congress is gearing up to overhaul the tax code, so Trump may talk about how he can make this part of the picture.

What does Trump say about vouchers and school choice?

It’s no secret that school choice is the Trump administration’s favorite education policy. Trump made a pitch for a $20 billion voucher program on the campaign trail and picked an education secretary who has spent decades advocating for expanding student options. It’s unclear whether the new administration will push for private school vouchers, though—a proposal to allow federal funding to follow students to the school of their choice failed to pass in the Senate in 2015, when Republicans had a bigger majority than they do now.

Many in Washington say it’s more likely that Trump may push to create a federal tax credit for individuals and corporations who give money to scholarship-granting organizations. Seventeen states already have something similar on the books, according to EdChoice, the advocacy organization formerly known as the Freidman Foundation for Educational Choice. And Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. have introduced legislation on this issue.

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