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Envisioning Education Policy Under a President Donald Trump

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 08, 2016 8 min read
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, seen speaking at a rally in Valdosta, Ga.
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Education advocates and policy analysts are contemplating the possibility of a Donald Trump presidential administration—and, in many cases, having trouble bringing the picture into focus.

With a few exceptions, the real estate developer and front-runner in the Republican race for the White House has steered clear of concrete talk about education policy, instead focusing his campaign on issues such as illegal immigration and international trade. That’s left experts and observers to try to fill in the blanks where they can.

Over the course of his public life, Trump has addressed education issues with differing degrees of specificity. For example, in his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump expressed skepticism about the influence of teachers’ unions on public schools, as well as support for a variety of school choice programs.

“Education reformers call this school choice, charter schools, vouchers, even opportunity scholarships. I call it competition—the American way,” Trump wrote.

Since he began running for president last year, Trump has made one position he holds on education very clear: He despises the Common Core State Standards and has repeatedly pledged to get rid of them. In a recent video his campaign posted to Facebook, for example, he said he’d eliminate the standards, without saying exactly how: “We’re taking common core and it’s going to be gone.”

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(The standards were the product of an initiative led by groups representing state governors and schools chiefs. The Obama administration has used federal grants to encourage their adoption and pay for related tests, but states aren’t required to use the standards or the tests.)

In the video, Trump also said: “We’ll have school boards, and we’ll have local. We’re not going to have it through Washington.”

Trump has also criticized American students’ performance on international exams, saying during a January rally in Oklahoma, “We have Third World countries that are ahead of us, countries that you wouldn’t believe.”

In addition, Trump has indicated he wants to either scrap the U.S. Department of Education or significantly cut it back, without providing specifics.

But aside from those remarks, Trump has not laid out a detailed plan for public schools. (His campaign did not respond to requests for comment about his education policy platform.)

And Trump University, a for-profit venture that offered courses in real estate management and development and is the subject of legal claims alleging the university did not deliver promised benefits to students who paid thousands of dollars for them, has received more criticism in recent weeks from one of his rivals for the GOP nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Peering Into the Future

Education Week asked several people from across the political and policy spectrum to weigh in on what a Trump administration and a Trump-led Education Department might do on education. They discussed issues including the Every Student Succeeds Act, the common core, and educational equity. Here are a few of their responses:

On Trump’s general approach to education policy issues and the U.S. Department of Education:

Kim Anderson: “I haven’t heard Mr. Trump talk about the value of public education.”

Frederick Hess: “He’s suggested that there’s a lot of waste, fraud, and abuse in Washington, and that the Department of Education can be downsized. But he’s also made a vigorous defense of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, so it makes you think he’s not going to be for trimming things like Title I and [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act].”

People Interviewed:

KIM ANDERSON, senior director of the center for advocacy and outreach at the National Education Association.

FREDERICK M. HESS, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute—Hess also writes an opinion blog for edweek.org.

CARMEL MARTIN, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, who previously worked in the Education Department under President Obama.

MICHAEL PETRILLI, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who previously worked in the Education Department under former President George W. Bush.

ANDY SMARICK, partner at consulting group Bellwether Education Partners, who worked in the Education Department under former President George W. Bush.

LUIS TORRES, director of policy for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Carmel Martin: “To the extent he’s said anything, he’s talked about repealing the infrastructure of what exists that helps children and college students every day.”

Michael Petrilli: “I certainly don’t think you’re going to see a Donald Trump who’s worried about a limited federal role in education. ... His instinct would be to steamroll Congress and the states if he thought they were getting in his way.”

Andy Smarick: “There’s a chance that he would decide that gifted education, or STEM education, or rural education, is very important to him. If he decides he has a number of priorities, there’s no reason to assume his governing philosophy would be to empower states or empower communities. He could decide he just wants to run these things centrally.”

Luis Torres: “A Trump administration that aggressively looks to expand charter schools without sufficiently looking at the accountability or the oversight of those schools, that would be a problem.”

On how a Trump administration’s approach to illegal immigration could affect issues related to education, such as President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, equity, and English-language learners:

Hess: “To my mind, this is one of the real veins of frustration that Trump has tapped into, that there’s an exquisite politeness about how liberals and so many educators and East Coast media talk about this issue in a way that doesn’t talk about how there are pluses and minuses that affect people in different ways. ... He might say, ‘Why are we focusing on children who are here illegally in terms of prioritizing school funding?’ ”

Martin: “The Department of Education plays a very important role in civil rights enforcement in our country. ... Obviously, Donald Trump gives us no evidence that he would help us carry that forward.”

Smarick: “If he’s actually serious about deporting 11 million people, it does make me wonder, what are all the ripples that come out of that policy? But he recently said that everything’s negotiable.”

Torres: “We have a lot of young people who are benefiting from President Barack Obama’s executive action to provide temporary relief for those students. A Donald Trump presidency, if that happens, would lead to a lot of students not being able to go to college, and they would go back into the shadows.”

On whether Trump would push a bill in Congress to ban the common core:

Hess: “Almost anything is possible, but it seems not very much is likely. He could introduce a bill outlawing the common core. It seems to me highly unlikely he would do so.”

Martin: “He would have the federal government telling states and districts what to do regarding their standards, which is the exact opposite of what his rhetoric is.”

Petrilli: “That would be hard to imagine. I don’t know that he understands what the common core is, or what the role of the federal government in common core has been. He’s getting a lot of applause. I think that just evaporates if he were to become president.”

On how a Trump administration would affect the transition to ESSA:

Anderson: “ESSA is, frankly, the opportunity that educators have in their schools and in their districts and in their states to voice what they believe should happen for the benefit of all students. ... I’m not really sure that Trump would have a whole lot to say about a law that Congress has passed and has been very clear in their desire to be vigilant about how ESSA is implemented.”

Martin: “He’s talking about dismantling the Department of Education. If you dismantle it, you would be abdicating your responsibility under that law. If he’s dismantling the agency whose mission is to implement those provisions, ... it would be very bad for kids.”

Petrilli: “Regardless of who’s elected, there’s going to be a period of uncertainty. ... If it’s Trump, I think that time of uncertainty is going to last even longer. Who’s going to work in a Trump administration? How many career civil servants at the department will quit?”

Torres: “He may make it harder for the department to exercise its authority to conduct oversight. So that’s a worry for us. ... We want education to be local. But we want to prevent situations where our states are not necessarily acting in the best interests of the kids.”

On whether Trump would be more likely to engage with K-12 or higher education issues:

Petrilli: "[About the Education Department’s office for civil rights’ recent approach to sexual assaults on college campuses] You could see him trying to blow that up, saying, ‘That’s an issue for the courts.’ You could imagine him staking out a populist position on the cost of tuition and student loans. Do I see Donald Trump getting engaged in the minutiae of ESSA implementation? No.”

Smarick: “I think calling Trump University higher education is very charitable. ... Nothing I’ve read suggests that he had a deep passion for making sure that people were well-schooled and well-informed and left with greater skills.”

On the background or experience of the person Trump might nominate to be the next education secretary:

Hess: “He doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s likely to have a favorite think tank. He’ll probably have somebody who he knows or likes—maybe there’s somebody in New York education circles he’s known or he’s encountered or he’s seen on TV.”

Martin: “What I worry about is that it would be like someone who helped him set up Trump University, and who wouldn’t really have the knowledge and skills to do it.”

Smarick: “He could pick a business executive, he could pick a union leader, he could pick a governor. I have no idea. The fact that he seems to like [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie—if Chris Christie gives him advice on education policy, it could be about anti-unionism, it could be about school choice.”

Torres: “We would also assume that whoever he picks is obviously not going to be supportive of common core. They’re going to have a local-control bent.”

A major point raised by those who spoke to Education Week is that it’s unclear how Trump would affect specific policies. Those on the more conservative side of the spectrum said it’s not apparent whether Trump—even if he wins the presidency as a Republican—would adhere to the principles that often guide GOP lawmakers on education policy. And those speaking from a more liberal perspective expressed concerns about how much a Trump administration would care about or engage in government oversight in general for education.

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Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Eyeing Trump Through Lens of K-12 Issues

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