Donald Trump’s victory in the race for the White House leaves widespread uncertainty about what’s in store for public schools under the first Republican administration in eight years. Aside from school choice, Trump, a New York-based real estate developer who has never before held public office, spent little time talking about K-12 education during his campaign. And he has no record to speak of on the issue for insights into what he may propose.
“We’re all engaging in a lot of speculation because there hasn’t been a lot of serious discussion about this, especially in the Trump campaign,” Martin R. West, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, said in the run-up to the Nov. 8 presidential election. West has advised Republicans, including 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, on education.
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Trump did propose a $20 billion plan to dramatically expand school choice for low-income students. It would use federal money to help them attend private, charter, magnet, and regular public schools of their choice. It’s also designed to leverage additional state investments in school choice of up to $100 billion nationwide.
In the campaign, the president-elect also embraced merit pay for teachers, without offering details beyond saying he found it unfair that “bad” teachers sometimes earned “more than the good ones.” And, on the early-childhood front, he’s pitched offering six weeks of maternity leave to women who do not get it through their employers, expanding the availability of dependent-care savings accounts, and offering tax incentives for employers to provide on-site day care.
But otherwise, the Trump campaign mostly dealt in sound bites with such controversial issues as the Common Core State Standards, the possibility of getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education, and gun-free school zones.
“I could really see him trying to minimize any role [of the federal government in education],” Nat Malkus, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said in contemplating the implications of a Trump presidency ahead of the vote.
Pressing Issues and Staff
While education is not a high-profile issue politically at the moment, it’s not as if the Trump administration won’t have anything to do on school policy.
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At or near the top of the K-12 to-do list is how the new administration handles the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, the latest version of the flagship federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was first passed in 1965. The Education Department under President Barack Obama is relatively close to finalizing ESSA regulations governing how states hold schools accountable and how districts must show they are using federal money to supplement their state and local school budgets.
Republicans in Congress have been critical of both sets of proposals from the department, particularly the one governing the supplemental-money rule. In fact, 25 GOP lawmakers recently asked the department to rescind its proposal for ensuring federal funds are supplemental, not a replacement for state and local money, on the grounds that the proposal would give the department too much power over state and local budget decisions.
The incoming administration may be on the same page as those lawmakers, said Gerard Robinson, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former state schools chief in Virginia and Florida.
“I think [Trump’s] secretary of education will handle it differently than what we’ve seen from [current Secretary] John King,” regarding the so-called supplement-not-supplant rules, Robinson said. Robinson is serving as a member of the Trump transition team, but spoke only on his own behalf.
However, when it comes to ESSA in general, Robinson said he believes that Trump views the law as a result of a “bipartisan coalition” and that the president-elect won’t get too heavily involved in ESSA’s rollout.
And Robinson expects states to have a great deal of flexibility in the ESSA accountability plans that they submit to the Trump administration starting next year—significantly more than they enjoyed under Obama-era waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, the predecessor to ESSA.
“This is a great time to be a state chief,” Robinson said, adding at the same time that “I don’t want state chiefs to think that when they turn those [plans] in that, ‘Oh, well, these will just get approved.’ ”
What’s more, a lot of policies under the No Child Left Behind Act were part of the law but the George W. Bush or Obama administration didn’t do much to enforce them. A couple of examples: the requirement that highly qualified teachers be distributed fairly between poor and less-poor schools, and that districts offer free tutoring to students in schools that weren’t making progress under the law.
There could be similar examples of provisions that are on the books in ESSA, or in the Obama administration’s regulations for the law, said Vic Klatt, a one-time aide to House Republicans who is now a principal at the Penn Hill Group. And since the Trump administration will be the first to enforce ESSA, it could be “easier and less disruptive” for it to simply ignore parts of the law than it would be for another administration down the line, Klatt said.
Trump could also discard another key piece of the Obama education legacy: The president-elect could significantly curb the role of the department’s office for civil rights when it comes to state and local policies, according to Robinson, and thereby return the OCR’s role more to how it operated under Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. That could have a big impact on everything from action on racial disparities in school discipline to transgender students’ rights.
Robinson also said that he expects the OCR to ensure that students’ rights are not “trampled on.”
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Some civil rights advocates though, are already concerned, given some of Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric on Muslims and Latinos, that the office won’t flex its enforcement muscles.
“We’re worried,” said Liz King, the director of education policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We’re hearing what everyone else is hearing from teachers and families that kids don’t feel safe.”
Much depends on whom Trump picks to lead his Education Department—assuming that he decides not to seek elimination or drastic cutbacks to the agency, which he has sometimes said he would like to do.
In October, Carl Palladino, a school board member in Buffalo, N.Y., and a Trump campaign surrogate, said he believed that if elected, Trump would pick someone from outside the education policy world to lead the department.
Another critical decision will be on who reviews states’ proposed accountability plans for ESSA next year.
“Who are going to be his people? If he brings in a traditional right-of-center group, you can take it from there,” said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy, who worked in the Education Department under President Bill Clinton.
Ferguson suggested a traditional conservative policy agenda of expanded charter schools and other initiatives would probably get traction under Trump.
“All these familiar themes that the right-of-center groups have talked about will become a version of his agenda,” Ferguson predicted. She mentioned school choice and groups like the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination. “But I don’t think it’s going to come from him.”
Earlier this year, Trump tapped Rob Goad, a staffer for Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., to be his education adviser, not long before the Trump campaign released its $20 billion school choice plan. There are some basic similarities between Trump’s plan and a push last year to make federal Title I aid “portable” for disadvantaged students to use at both public and private schools.
And Trump’s transition team for education includes Robinson, the former Florida and Virginia state chief, and Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who worked at the Education Department under President George W. Bush.
Working With Congress
Much also depends on Trump’s relationship with Congress and to what extent he empowers key GOP lawmakers on education policy.
Besides ESSA, Congress has been fairly active in moving education-related legislation. In recent months, for example, the House of Representatives approved reauthorizations of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
Some, but less, progress has also been made on renewing the Child Nutrition Act. And the Higher Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Head Start federal preschool program are up for reauthorization in the near future.
Trump has outlined a general plan on college affordability, including capping student-loan repayments at 12.5 percent of income and instituting loan forgiveness after 15 years for certain borrowers. College affordability is a more prominent issue thanks to the 2016 presidential campaign. And since Congress remains sharply divided along partisan lines, Trump and the Republicans likely won’t be able to simply roll ahead with all their preferences on higher education.
“You’re not doing anything legislatively without bipartisan support,” said West, of Harvard. “It’s not obvious to me that there is a clear Republican agenda in Congress right now with respect to K-12 education, except for trying to ensure that ESSA is implemented in a way consistent with the intent of the law of empowering states to design accountability systems as they see fit.”
Regarding Trump’s school choice plan, for example, West noted that a more limited pitch to allow students to take Title I funds, targeting disadvantaged students, to the public or private schools of their choice fell flat during negotiations to pass what ultimately became ESSA. That’s a bad sign for a broader initiative like the one Trump has put out, he said. (ESSA does broaden access to grant money distributed through the federal Charter School Program.)
But uncertainty prevails, both over what the new president will take an interest in and how much he will push to get education bills and initiatives over the finish line.
Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Trump Lesson Plan Awaited