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Federal Opinion

Five Thoughts on Trump’s Education Speech

By Rick Hess — September 09, 2016 3 min read
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Yesterday, at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, Donald Trump delivered a speech about his education vision. As I’ve repeatedly noted, there’s no point in putting a lot of stock in his speeches and utterances. Trump says stuff. It’s mostly performance art. He’s changed his mind many times on questions big and small (remember, in 2012 he declared that Mitt Romney had been too tough on illegal immigration; he’s flip-flopped on gun control; heck, he was recently a Democrat). And Trump has himself told us not to take his policy proposals literally. So, it’s a mistake to read anything much into the remarks. That said, here are five quick thoughts.

1] However little faith I have that any of it should be taken at face value, the speech was a nice marker. In a campaign where conservative intuitions have been missing in action, it was nice to see parental choice and the problems with bureaucracy get a prominent platform. It’s nice to see a candidate talk about the importance of the bully pulpit, and not just new programs. Amidst Hillary Clinton’s barrage of proposals for federal micro-management (and free stuff), and the endless machinations from the Obama Department of Ed, it was a pleasant change of pace. And I think it’s useful and healthy to see a presidential nominee reminding the Common Core’s shills of just how badly they’ve poisoned their brand.

2] Watching Trump talk policy is a lot like watching someone enthusiastically try to sell you insurance in a second tongue. He’s for school choice, big time. He shows it enthusiastically, slobberingly even, by proposing . . . $20 billion in new federal spending for choice. It’s a big gesture, it’s grand, it’s symbolic—hey, it’s like Trump Tower. All those details and policy particulars that you usually find in a white paper on the website? For him, not so much.

3] A speech like this is where Trump’s lack of thoughtfulness or a meaningful policy operation really comes into play. If a Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, or John Kasich gave this speech, I’d have some confidence that they’d thought about what this would really look like. With Trump, it’s hard to have any such confidence. Trump has no record on this question. He gave no indication where the $20 billion in “existing federal dollars” will come from. It sounds like Trump’s proposing a block grant to states so they could design their choice models as they wish (e.g. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s proposal from last year), but I have zero confidence that Trump has thought much about it or is committed to the block grant approach.

4] The speech was a reminder why his appointees would matter so incredibly much if Trump wins (and it’s important to remember that there’s at least a 1-in-4 chance that he might). Trump doesn’t have a developed policy agenda. He’s certainly not committed to the Republican platform. What a Trump presidency would mean for education would depend hugely on who wound up being appointed to shape and execute that vision, starting with his still-nascent transition team.

5] I suppose I shouldn’t, but I enjoy the paroxysms of outrage that Trump can inspire. AFT president Randi Weingarten thundered, “Today’s speech on education repeats the same flawed ideology anti-public education zealots have been shilling for years. As far as we can tell, Trump never bothered talking to educators to find out what support they need in order to give every kid a great education.” Jim Cowen, head of Common Core mouthpiece the Collaborative for Student Success, intoned, “Donald Trump fundamentally misunderstands the Common Core. He apparently doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that when he calls for equity in education, access, affordability and accountability to the system is [sic] exactly what the Common Core has done . . . In the end, his clamor about ending the Common Core is both obsolete and irrelevant.” By the way, I think it’s reactions like these that help explain why conservatives (whatever their reservations) have been coalescing around Trump. I think the logic is, “Well, if he can make these guys this angry, he can’t be all bad.”

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