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Trump (Possibly, for a Moment) Names Education as a Top Federal Priority

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 29, 2016 3 min read
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Remember when several education policy advocates said that they were largely uncertain about how Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would handle federal education policy? During a GOP town hall event in Milwaukee on Tuesday hosted by CNN, Trump threw what many people might think is a real K-12 curveball.

The real estate developer was asked by a voter what he thinks are the top three functions of the federal government. After naming national security, Trump also cited education and health care as the top priorities.

When CNN moderator Anderson Cooper subsequently reminded Trump that he’d previously expressed opposition to the federal government’s role in education (more on that in the moment), Trump seemed to shift his position. He said that he wants education policy power to devolve to the states, and added that he saw education as a top issue for the nation.

So what’s the broader context for Trump’s statements at the town hall?

As we highlighted previously in our K-12 policy election guide, Trump has called the U.S. Department of Education a “massive behemoth.” At different points, he has said he’d either get rid of it, or slash it “way, way down.” His closest rival for the GOP nomination, GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has repeatedly called for the elimination of the Education Department, while fellow Republican presidential hopeful Ohio Gov. John Kasich wants many of its programs consolidated into four big block grants and sent to states.

In a Facebook video posted by his campaign about education, Trump stressed that under his presidential administration, local school boards would have priority over running schools. And he also hasn’t been a big fan of American students’ achievement on the world stage, at least as far as international test scores go.

None of those previously stated positions seem to jibe naturally with Trump’s (initial, at least) statement Tuesday that education should be a top federal government priority.

At least in theory, Trump should be pleased by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed by President Barack Obama last December. ESSA gives states and districts significantly more power over things like teacher evaluations and school turnarounds. (It even includes a block grant.) But Trump hasn’t addressed the new law when he’s mentioned education, including during CNN’s town hall.

Some conservatives might argue that just because education is a major priority for the country, that doesn’t mean people should be big fans of the Education Department. But others might say it’s contradictory for Trump to claim that the federal government should make education one of its top three priorities, yet also to want policy power to devolve to states, while simultaneously (according to his previous statements) drastically cutting or ending the Education Department.

In his own appearance at CNN’s GOP town hall event, Cruz reiterated his desire for reducing Washington’s role in education: “I think the federal government needs to get the heck out of it.” And he also pledged that on his first day as president, he would direct the Education Department to end the Common Core State Standards. However, states adopt content standards, and the department cannot terminate the common core.

Cruz also said that school choice is “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” Other than his stance on the common core, that’s Cruz’s favorite position to highlight publicly when it comes to K-12 policy—he’s even used that phrase about “civil rights” before.

And Kasich made a pitch for shifting more control over education, along with other policy issues, out of Washington and to the states. He then said that states, in turn, should consider shifting more policy power in general to local government.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a news conference in New York last September. AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

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