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Is It a Big Deal That Trump Barely Mentioned Education in State of the Union?

By Alyson Klein — January 31, 2018 3 min read
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Flashback to 2017: President Donald Trump spent a lot of time on education in his first joint speech to Congess. He called education “the civil rights issue of our time” and asked lawmakers to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

But the president’s first official State of the Union speech on Tuesday was almost devoid of any reference to school choice. (One possible, fleeting exception: Trump pointed to a family from Ohio who may plan use savings from the recent tax bill for education expenses. But it wasn’t clear if the president was talking about either tax-advantaged savings for K-12 private school tuition—an opportunity made available by the recent tax bill—or such savings for college tuition, which has been an option for years.) There wasn’t any reference to K-12 beyond a quick nod to vocational education.

So is that a lot less on education than we are used to hearing in a State of the Union address or in a similar speech to Congress? Yes, this speech was lighter on education than any since 1989, according to a review of speeches by the Education Week Library. In fact, some past presidents used their State of the Union speeches roll out or spike the football on some big initiatives. For instance:

•Back in 1990, President George H.W. Bush unveiled national education goals for the first time, a big step for the standards-based education movement.

•In 1994, President Bill Clinton talked about his Goals 2000 legislation, which eventually became law and provided districts with resources to “link world-class standards with grassroots reforms,” including charter schools.

•President George W. Bush used his 2001 address to tout the principles of what became the No Child Left Behind Act, including the importance of using standardized tests to measure achievement.

•In his first address to Congress in 2009, President Barack Obama set a goal of leading the world in college completion by 2020. He and his administration referred back to that aspiration throughout his presidency to make the case for expanding pre-school, the Race to the Top competition, and other initiatives.

What should we take away, then, from the fact that there was so little on education in Trump’s speech?

The lack of emphasis on K-12 wasn’t exactly a shocker for Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science and education at Drew University in New Jersey. Trump is the first president since Ronald Reagan who doesn’t believe in using the federal government to champion national standards—or much of anything else in K-12 beyond choice, he added.

“The administration doesn’t really have a proactive agenda,” McGuinn said. “Most of what they seem to be doing is undoing what Obama did. And they seem content with that.”

Trump may have had a good reason for refraining from a victory lap on his biggest K-12 accomplishment to date—a change in the recent tax bill allowing 529 college-savings plans to be used for K-12 private school tuition, said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a center-right think tank based in New York City.

“It was such an ambiguous victory and so far from what he promised in” his speech to Congress last year, Eden said. The promise was a “massive program geared towards low-income students,” he said. But what Trump delivered was “a small-scale tax program geared toward middle and higher income parents.”

And there aren’t likely to be additional resources for a new choice program in what’s likely to be a tough budget year.

“If you’re not willing to put any dollars behind your agenda or even behind school choice, you’re not going to get a lot of traction with it,” McGuinn said.

Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this post.

Here are highlights of President Donald Trump’s administration on education:

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