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What Are Trump’s Next K-12 Priorities? Don’t Look to a GOP Platform for Answers

By Evie Blad — August 24, 2020 3 min read
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At the Republican National Convention this week, speakers will make the case for re-electing President Donald Trump. But they won’t approve a platform that outlines in detail Trump’s priorities for a second term, including a vision for education.

In a break from a decades-long norm, GOP delegates issued a resolution that leaves in place the 2016 platform and asserts that the party “enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration.”

Instead, Trump’s campaign released a brief, bulleted list of his second-term priorities that included just two items under the heading for education: “Provide School Choice to Every Child in America” and “Teach American Exceptionalism.”

School Choice

Even without a new, detailed document, Trump’s big education push—school choice—is pretty clear to anyone who has heard him speak recently. The president frequently mentions the phrase, usually referring to policies that aim to help pay for private school tuition, like his administration’s push for a federal tax-credit scholarship program.

Trump has also voiced support for a Senate GOP bill that provide some COVID-19 relief funding to private schools, and he’s suggested federal money should “follow students” to private schools and other alternatives if their public schools don’t physically open for classes during the pandemic.

But there have been some big moments in the debate over school choice since 2016, when the party platform called for support for education savings accounts, vouchers, and tuition tax credits. Notably, a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, in which the court held that a Montana prohibition on families from using state tax-credit scholarships at religious schools was an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom.

And, despite his support for school choice, Trump has not convinced Congress to pass a major choice expansion.

‘American Exceptionalism’

A call to “Teach American Exceptionalism” touches on some of the social and cultural issues Trump has sought to play up in his reelection push. He’s accused Democrats of “cancel culture” and pushed back against efforts to take down statues of Confederate figures.

Some Trump supporters have made teaching about “exceptionalism” a priority, in part to push back against efforts like the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning special essay collection about the history of slavery in the United States.

“Young people lose heart early on,” the right-leaning Heritage Foundation said in a May promotion for a webinar on teaching American exceptionalism. “Trapped in government-run schools, they learn that America is a nation of imperialism, greed, and racism. Rarely do they hear the truth: that America is the freest, most prosperous nation on Earth—the only nation founded on the concept of human liberty.”

Recently, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Trump ally, proposed a bill that would prohibit federal funds from being used to teach the 1619 Project.

Without any more details, it’s not clear if Trump’s bullet point is a policy or a preference. A president could use his podium to promote ideas, and he could encourage schools to teach those ideas, but he can’t mandate that teachers teach them. The Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that replaced NCLB before Trump took office, prohibits federal officials from mandating, directing, or controlling a state, school, or district’s educational standards, content or curriculum.

Helping Schools Recover After Coronavirus

Trump’s education priorities are also silent on the coronavirus, which is sure to alter the operations and funding of schools for years to come.

The virus has threatened state and local tax revenues and, with them, school budgets. And educators anticipate ongoing work to help students catch up from interrupted learning, even after classrooms fully reopen.

You can read about the Democrats positions on education here. And you can read about former Vice President Joe Biden’s plans for education here.

Photo: President Donald J. Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in April. (Shawn Thew/CNP via ZUMA Wire)

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