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Many GOP K-12 Policy Vets Cool to Idea of Working for Donald Trump

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — May 09, 2016 4 min read
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Political pundits attribute much of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s success to his willingness to stand against the so-called “Washington establishment.” So where does that leave the folks who have advised Republican candidates on education policy for years? Will they go to work for him if he’s elected or help his campaign? We asked around, and here’s what we heard.

  • Marty West, a professor of education at Harvard University who advised Gov. Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential bid in 2012 and has worked with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on K-12 issues, isn’t about to sign onto the Trump train—and he doesn’t know anyone else who is.

    “The central challenge for any presidential candidate, especially on the Republican side, is to translate his or her vision into a policy agenda that respects the federal government’s limited capacity to effect change,” West said. Trump has “picked up Republican talking points” including on school choice, “the influence of teachers’ unions, the importance of local control, [but] he does not appear to have given any thought to what it would mean to take action on those issue from Washington.”

    It’s not all about Trump’s edu-views, which West acknowledges are a “wild card” at this point. West has other problems with the candidate. “His behavior over the course of the campaign should disqualify him,” West said.

    And he’s glad that Alexander and other Republicans in Washington were able to get what West sees as a big win for the GOP on education policy—the Every Student Succeeds Act—over the finish line before a potential Trump presidency. Now, Washington’s role in K-12 policy is much clearer, West said, and states will be able to lead the way.

  • John Bailey, who is the vice-president for policy of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was started by one-time Trump rival Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, said he wouldn’t work for or advise Trump. (Importantly, Bailey was speaking only for himself, not for the foundation, or anyone else associated with it.)

    Why not? “I just don’t believe he has an agenda,” Bailey said, who also advised Gov. Romney’s presidential bid. “It troubles me greatly how dismissive he is of many key groups, whether it’s women, immigrants or minorities.” But Bailey doesn’t think that Trump’s ascension to likely nominee means the end of the so-called “education establishment"—there are plenty of GOP governors, state chiefs, and governors who want to pursue a serious policy agenda on K-12, he said, and they’ll still need help.

  • Andy Smarick, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, has a different take. He’s happy to provide advice to any policymaker who wants it. But he has no idea at this point who Trump is listening to on K-12.

    “In my adult life I’ve never seen a top-tier candidate be so light on policy,” Smarick said. “I’ve never seen a candidate so light on governing principles. I don’t know if he believes in parental choice. I don’t know if he believes in Title I portability. I’ve never been in a position of not knowing what the North Star of a major candidate is on education policy.”

    So where should anyone interested in getting a sense of where Trump will take the nation’s schools look? Smarick suggested the real estate mogul’s eventual vice-presidential pick might be a good place to start. If Trump were to tap, say, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, that pick may end up having a major influence on policy, and that could trickle down to Trump’s K-12 team. Still, Smarick said, it’s a totally open question.

  • Once every couple of months, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, hosts a dinner gathering of about 25 conservatives who work in education policy, including some who worked in President George W. Bush’s Education Department, as well as for GOP governors. Fewer than five of them, Hess told us have indicated they’d be willing to work in a Trump-led department. And conservative education advocates at the state level might not be good candidates for department jobs either, he added, because many of them are likely to have been partisans for Sen. Cruz. (Hess also writes an opinion blog for

    But Hess also said if some veterans of the Bush Education Department and other conservative Beltway mandarins go to work for a Donald Trump department, they might be able to get a lot done and have a lot of sway over a candidate who hasn’t thought a lot about (and may not ultimately care much about) K-12 policy.

    “It is irresponsible to leave the guy rudderless,” Hess said, describing that attitude.

    Among those dinner-gathering conservatives, “Jeb Bush was the standard” from a K-12 policy perspective, according to Hess—but the former Florida governor’s campaign woes took also took a lot of the luster off that idea before the Iowa caucuses. (Last Friday, Bush said he will not vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton.)

Image: Screen capture of Donald Trump’s Facebook video about education

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