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Many GOP K-12 Policy Hands Would Turn Down a Job With Donald Trump

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 16, 2016 6 min read
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Omaha, Neb., earlier this month.

Faced with the prospect of working on education policy in a presidential administration headed by Donald Trump, some veterans of past Republican education departments, aides to GOP members of Congress, and other old policy hands are saying, “No thanks.”

After eight years working outside of government during President Barack Obama’s presidency, many had pondered joining the U.S. Department of Education under a Republican administration or advising a GOP president—perhaps one headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or another of Trump’s former rivals for the White House.

But these same policy experts say Trump, now the presumptive Republican nominee, is simply too unpredictable, offends their personal beliefs about presidential conduct, or hasn’t expressed the kind of grasp of or interest in education policy that would provide a clear sense of direction for those under him.

Such a widespread refusal wouldn’t just impact a Trump-led Education Department, but the entire power structure of education policy in Washington, said Vic Klatt, a former GOP staff director at the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee who worked in the Education Department in Republican administrations under Secretaries Lamar Alexander and Lauro Cavazos.

“I think it’s unprecedented. I can’t ever remember a situation like this,” said Klatt, who is now a principal at the Penn Hill Group (a Washington lobbying firm) and who said he will not work for or otherwise help Trump. “My theory of how education policy will work, if Trump is elected, is that the details of policy more than ever before will be determined by Congress. My view is that education is not an issue high on Trump’s list, and as a result, he’ll cede it to others.”

Sense of Obligation

Others in the field, however, say that they’d be eager to work for a President Trump, however uncertain that work might be. They cite a sense of obligation, or said they might have more freedom to shape the views and actions of a president who has largely ignored education as a campaign and policy issue.

“I’m never going to divorce myself from the opportunity to influence the president of the United States,” said James Guthrie, a former state superintendent of Nevada and former director of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute who’s now a professor of education at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. “I don’t know if I like him or dislike him.”

Trump, who has no remaining Republican rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, has not put education policy at the center of his campaign. His campaign has not responded to repeated requests for comments about his plans for education and who he is consulting with as he gears up for a general election run.

Like several other candidates, Trump has not released a detailed education policy platform. But he has expressed his viewpoints in debates, speeches, and online statements.

For example, he has said that he plans to get rid of the Common Core State Standards if he becomes president, despite the fact that states, and not the Education Department, adopt content standards. In fact, Trump has also talked about drastically cutting or eliminating the department itself, even though at one point in a March GOP town hall event he called education one of the three top priorities for the federal government. He has also said that under his presidential administration, local school boards would have more influence.

Unclear Agenda

At a recent dinner of about 25 conservative policy veterans of President George W. Bush’s administration and K-12 staffers in Congress, Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, recalled that fewer than five of them said that they’d want to work in education under Trump.

Compared to the prospect of working in Washington under Jeb Bush or some other of the Republican White House hopefuls who have fallen by the wayside, Hess said, “I don’t think there would be the same level of interest, nowhere close.” (Hess writes an opinion blog for edweek.org.)

It’s the way Trump has discussed various groups of people, along with his non-existent education platform, that leads John Bailey, the vice president for policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education (founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush), to swear off working for or providing counsel to Trump.

“I just don’t believe he has an agenda,” Bailey said. “It troubles me greatly how dismissive he is of many key groups, whether it’s women, immigrants, or minorities.”

And while Andy Smarick said he’s happy to provide advice to any elected official who asks for it, the former official in the Education Department under President George W. Bush said he’s ultimately baffled by Trump.

“I’ve never been in a position of not knowing what the North Star of a major candidate is on education policy,” said Smarick, who’s now a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm.

Some clarity about what Trump means when he makes sweeping statements about ditching or gutting the Education Department, for example, might be helpful to people pondering work in a Trump administration, Klatt indicated.

“Does that mean he wants to get rid of all student loans, and Pell grants, and Title I, and the [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act]? Well, that’s a problem,” Klatt said. “But if he means something different than that, like moving those programs over to a different agency, well that’s a different issue.”

Hearing the Call

Hess said even though some might recoil from Trump as a political candidate, they might also feel a certain noblesse oblige and work in his administration, in order not to leave Trump “rudderless.” And Klatt noted that while he won’t work for Trump, or Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton if she wins, “You don’t just work for your president, you work for your country.”

The chance to bolster support for school choice programs around the country is enough for Anna Egalite, an assistant professor of educational leadership at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., to say she’d take a job working in the Trump administration. She sees him supporting programs like education savings accounts, for example.

Yet she’s also wary of Trump’s unpredictability.

“There so much uncertainty about what his administration would create or destroy,” Egalite said.

When someone from the Trump campaign called her recently to discuss advising it about education policy, Jeanne Allen flat out declined.

The founder of the Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and school choice for parents, among other issues, and a former official in the Education Department under President Ronald Reagan, Allen said, “I don’t want my issues coming out of his mouth.” (Allen declined to identify who on Trump’s campaign contacted her.)

Allen said that after advocates have spent years working to build a broad and diverse set of supporters for school choice, Trump would damage her’s and others’ efforts in that area. Rather than lean on Trump in the White House, Allen said she’d rather influence states to continue expanding options for parents. And it’s a pipe dream, she argued, to think that Trump and an Education Department that answers to him would present a clean slate that education policy experts could put their stamp on easily.

What’s particularly disturbing to Allen about Trump’s support for local boards is that if he followed through, it would, in her view, effectively roll back years of progress in education policy.

“I don’t believe that you can actually steer him. I don’t believe that you can steer people he is involved with,” Allen said. “He’s going to get a bunch of second and third stringers.”

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Assistant Editor Alyson Klein contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of Education Week as Many GOP K-12 Policy Hands Cool to Idea of Trump Post

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