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Trump’s First 100 Days: How Does He Stack Up to Obama, Bush on K-12?

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 24, 2017 5 min read
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Have you been waiting for President Donald Trump to work with the Republican-controlled Congress and get rolling on a big K-12 education initiative? If so, you might be getting a little bit antsy. But is that unusual during the first 100 days or so of a presidential administration?

Here’s a quick sketch of some of the bigger things the Trump administration has gotten done so far on public school policy after nearly 100 days in office:

For his first 100 days in office, Trump pledged to work with Congress to enact a major expansion in school choice and end the Common Core State Standards. That major choice expansion hasn’t happened. The Trump administration will hit the 100-day mark on April 29.

Part of your perspective on this question might depend on how you frame what Trump and the GOP Congress have done.

The move to overturn the Obama-era ESSA accountability regulations isn’t the same as passing a signature K-12 policy bill. But Trump’s decision to toss those rules overboard, after GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and GOP Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana pushed the measure to overturn them through Congress, could have a huge impact on how states approach the main federal law governing public schools. And it adheres to a conservative principle of limiting Washington’s role in state and local decisions about K-12. (That last point could also be said about rescinding the transgender guidance.) So politically, from a GOP perspective, ditching the ESSA rules is a significant accomplishment.

However, that still leaves us with this conclusion: Trump and Congress haven’t wrapped up, or even done major work on, a signature K-12 policy bill. Trump has talked a fair bit about expanding school choice. And there are placeholders for it in his preliminary fiscal 2018 budget. Those could eventually turn into significant voucher or tax-credit proposals. But so far, no school choice legislation in Congress has gotten any real traction, including a high-profile voucher bill from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

So how does this level of activity by Trump and Congress compare to Trump’s two most immediate predecessors and the respective lawmakers Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush had to work with? Let’s explore.

The Early Barack Obama Days

There are two words you need to know when considering early K-12 accomplishments under Obama: the stimulus.

Formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and signed by Obama in February 2009, the legislation designed to help pull the nation out of the Great Recession contained a goody bag—or, if you prefer, a Pandora’s box—full of education initiatives that came to be closely identified with Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Race to the Top was included in the stimulus. School Improvement Grants and Investing in Innovation (i3) grants, along with money to boost state longitudinal data systems for education, were either launched or expanded through the stimulus. Another signature Obama initiative, Promise Neighborhoods, was part of the 2009 stimulus package. The stimulus also expanded the Teacher Incentive Fund, which was created in 2006 and backed performance-based teacher and principal compensation.

In short, ARRA shelled out billions of dollars directed at various education initiatives. The No Child Left Behind Act (more on that in a minute) was already overdue for reauthorization in 2009, and in the early going, the Obama administration had some hopes for getting a reauthorization of federal K-12 law done. But absent that reauthorization, Obama still got a significant amount done on K-12 inside of 100 days.

The Early George W. Bush Days

There are four words you need to know when considering early K-12 accomplishments under Bush: No Child Left Behind.

It’s important to note up front that Bush didn’t actually sign the No Child Left Behind Act until early 2002. However, that belies the early progress the Bush administration made on the legislation. Bush had talked about education as a top priority during the 2000 campaign. (Compared with 2016, believe it or not, 2000 was a cornucopia of K-12 talk from the White House hopefuls.) And the “bones” of the proposal that became the 2002 law were publicly laid out within roughly a week of Bush coming to the White House, recalled Sandy Kress, who worked on the legislation as Bush’s education adviser—although not all those bones made it into the final body that became NCLB, such as vouchers.

By mid-March 2001, the Senate education committee had passed a K-12 overhaul bill that embraced many of Bush’s priorities. Later that month, the GOP-controlled House introduced its own education legislation.

“We were moving hard and fast,” Kress said.

Things slowed down a bit heading into the summer. Passage in the Senate proved difficult at points. But Congress eventually enacted what became the NCLB law in late 2001. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had led to a desire in Congress for lawmakers to work together and approve a major bill like NCLB, Kress noted.

Different Context

Obviously, these comparisons come with caveats.

The times are different. For example, would any powerful Democratic lawmaker work with Trump on a big education initiative, as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., did with the Bush administration on NCLB? And since ESSA was just signed in late 2015, the timing’s not right for the current president to push for a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA is the latest iteration of that law). As for Obama, he faced a national economic crisis in 2009 that compelled immediate action, and he had a Democratic Congress to work with to shift large amounts of money into education initiatives, among other priorities.

And even though it’s not directly about K-12 policy like ESSA and NCLB, Trump’s ultimate plan for DREAMers is being closely watched by those in the education community.

So did we leave out any major accomplishments from any of the three administrations we looked at? Let us know in the comments section.

Photo: President Donald Trump takes his seat as he arrives for a meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and parents and teachers at a White House meeting. Evan Vucci/AP

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