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Federal Opinion

RHSU Flashback: As an Education Prez, Trump Would Be Obama’s Spiritual Heir

By Rick Hess — November 21, 2016 2 min read
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As it’s Thanksgiving week and I doubt readers are looking for a heavy read, let’s use this as a nice chance to dwell a bit on the teachable moment we find ourselves in. After all, for years, some of us have cautioned that Obama’s Department of Education was engaging in dubious freelancing that might come back to haunt its biggest fans. If there ever came a day when the precedents set by Arne Duncan and John King could be seized upon by the “wrong” Republican administration, we noted that they might regret some “bold” moves that they’d once cheered. Well, here we are. In fact, the shift is starker than anyone would’ve thought. After all, we’d imagined the comeuppance coming in the form of Mitt Romney or Rick Perry. The idea of a President Trump was more of a laugh line. (Right about now, progressives are finally as happy as I am that Republicans did their very best in ESSA to rein in the Secretary of Education and put an end to some of the more egregious maneuvers used by Duncan.)

Anyway, I figured it might be worth re-running a few columns that kind of got brushed away at the time, but might register more fully now—and that might help encourage some to perhaps give a second thought to the underappreciated blessings of federalism, limited government, and executive restraint. So without further adieu:

On the Ed Week homepage, Max Eden and I lament the lack of a conservative in the presidential contest. We argue that a conservative candidate is sorely needed after 16 years of Bush-Obama tutelage in the perils of federal education expansionism.

What’s that? You say that Donald Trump is a conservative? Not so much. Trump has spent at least half his adult life as a Democrat, has been on every side of every major issue, and seems wholly unacquainted with the Constitution. As Max and I put it, “Trump will occasionally utter conservative-sounding phrases, but he’s no conservative—he shows no taste for limited government, no respect for federalism, and no faith in local institutions.”

That gets to the real problem with Trump—which is that, as an aspiring executive, he is Barack Obama’s spiritual heir. Yep, you read that right.

Our Madisonian system of government was designed to safeguard against the passions of the moment and the proclivities of problematic officials. The executive is unable to legislate on his (or her) own, and is thus limited in important ways.

Unfortunately, those strictures have been loosened in recent decades, especially by Obama. Perhaps nowhere has his disregard for this design been on clearer display than education. Those same progressive “education reformers” who are worried what a President Trump might do should recognize that the same stuff they’ve cheered under Obama has opened the door for Trump--or future imitators.

As Max and I wrote:

Trump promised earlier this year, "I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools, you have to. ... My first day, it gets signed, OK? My first day. There's no more gun-free zones." While conservatives do typically support gun rights, this isn't even remotely a conservative proposal. Actually, it's a lesson in the value of conservative governance. Given that 4 in 10 Americans think arming teachers would make schools safer, Trump can insist that school safety is too important to leave to the whims of local officials who may put their own interests over what's best for the kids. After all, Trump's stance would be entirely consistent with the Obama administration's "pen and phone" approach to teacher evaluation, Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers, school discipline, campus sexual assault, supplement-not-supplant, and much else. The logic is always: The federal government has a duty to ensure that local officials and educators are doing what's right for kids.

I haven’t liked it when Obama has done it. And I suspect that I’ll have more company if Trump starts doing the same on behalf of school vouchers, or moves to conscript schools and colleges into combating illegal immigration. The question, if that comes to pass, will be whether any of my progressive friends recognize how much Obama has done to make possible the most disconcerting aspects of a Trump presidency.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.