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Federal Opinion

Trump’s Big ‘Education Week’

By Rick Hess — September 06, 2016 3 min read
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Last week was billed as the Trump campaign’s big “education week.” If you didn’t notice, that’s okay. I don’t think Trump did either. As a Vox headline aptly put it: “Donald Trump started to describe his education policy. Then he never finished his sentence.”

In the midst of a lazy August, the run-up to Trump’s education week prompted a mini-frenzy in D.C. education circles. After all, a major party nominee was going to devote a WHOLE WEEK to sketching out his education views. Woo-hoo! Reporters were hustling to find out what Trump might say and who his people had been talking to.

And how did the Trump campaign actually spend the week? First by telegraphing that Trump was going to “soften” his hardline stance on immigration. Then by sending the candidate to Mexico to meet with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto. Then by having Trump give a histrionic speech in Phoenix in which he mostly reiterated his hardline stance. The week closed with a controversy over the fact that Trump altered his major policy address at the last minute in response to a tweet sent by president Nieto. All this while the campaign continued to deal with fallout from Trump’s bizarre doctor’s note about the candidate’s yuuugely awesome health.

While it had nothing to do with education, last week’s whole Hamlet act on immigration was still instructive. After Trump’s big speech in Phoenix, several members of his recently formed Hispanic advisory council voiced their surprise and disappointment. Why? The New York Times reported that council member Jacob Monty and his colleagues had taken Trump at his word when, while meeting with the new council, the candidate “appeared humble,” “acknowledged the difficulty of deporting 11 million unauthorized immigrants,” and “suggested that he was working on a new policy that included a path to legalization.” Monty resigned from the council after the speech, lamenting, “He must listen to whoever speaks to him last.” Remember, immigration is Trump’s signature policy. Anyone trying to read the Trumpian tea leaves on education can’t say they weren’t forewarned.

What to make of all this?

That it’s mostly pointless trying to guess what a Trump administration would do on education. Look, the oddsmakers give Trump about a 1-in-4 chance of winning the presidency. He could win. If he does, nobody knows what he’ll actually do on a host of issues—including education. This is politics as performance art. Trump isn’t running on the GOP platform. He makes things up as he goes along and his position changes as his mood does. The candidate is wafer-thin on substance, and so are most of his position statements and campaign materials. Given all this, it’d be crazy to put much credence in his off-hand comments regarding charter schools, the U.S. Department of Education, the Common Core, or anything else.

It’s worth noting that the Trump campaign is having a bear of a time getting much help on education. A number of school choice advocates and conservative education thinkers have demurred when asked to sign on as advisors. Of late, Rob Goad from Rep. Luke Messer’s team has temporarily gone over to help develop the campaign’s education plan. (I like Messer and have heard good things about Goad from his colleagues, so that can only help.) But adding a loaner in late August is a far cry from cultivating a bench of knowledgeable advisors or developing an agenda in which the candidate is deeply invested.

Should Trump actually win, we’ll just have to see what happens. We’d have to see who was named to senior posts in the administration and Department of Education. We’d have to see whether a President Trump took any interest in the issue. We’d have to see how much leeway his appointees had or whether educational policy might be handed off to VP Mike Pence (a passionate proponent of school choice). We’d have to see whether a Trump administration deferred to Hill Republicans or struck a different course.

Now, aren’t you glad that Trump did his big education week? Boy, did that help clear things up.

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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.