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When a Former State Superintendent Met Donald Trump on the Candidate’s Plane

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 11, 2016 4 min read
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Want lots of details about Donald Trump’s education platform? Good luck. But James Guthrie, a former Nevada state superintendent, has perhaps had as much luck as anybody else in getting the presumptive Republican nominee for president to talk about K-12—at least very briefly. And Guthrie says he did so by pure coincidence, on “Trump Force One.”

First, here’s just a bit of background about Guthrie. In addition to being a former Nevada state schools chief, he’s a former fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, a former director of the Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University, and a former speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, among other things. He’s now a professor of education at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla.

Guthrie tells the following story: He was in Iowa in January helping out Engage Iowa, a conservative advocacy group, and was driving back to the airport in Cedar Rapids when he saw Trump’s plane from a distance. Guthrie expressed a desire to see it up close.

The head of a Republican women’s group in Iowa, who was driving him to the airport, did him one better: She took him through a separate entrance of the airport up to the plane. Guthrie says he then stepped right aboard Trump Force One, where he met with a receptionist, who asked him if he’d like to see Trump. Guthrie said he would.

After a short period, Trump came and met Guthrie. Trump asked what Guthrie did, and Guthrie told the real estate executive that he taught education policy and leadership. Trump’s response?

According to Guthrie, Trump told him that he didn’t say much about education because he didn’t think it was of interest at the moment to the American public. Trump also said he’d be interested at some time in the future in talking about it. Education wasn’t on his agenda now, Trump told Guthrie, but he would like it to be.

After that, Guthrie left his contact information with Trump’s receptionist in case Trump wanted to discuss K-12 policy. But since that brief meeting, Guthrie told me in a Monday interview, he hasn’t heard from Trump.

We contacted Trump’s campaign multiple times seeking confirmation of or comment on Guthrie’s story and what he said was Trump’s remark, but we have not heard back. (To date, the Trump campaign has not responded to any Education Week inquiries for stories.)

Guthrie stressed that he offered no advice to Trump about K-12, but did tell us he’d be interested in working for a Donald Trump presidential administration because, among other things, he simply wouldn’t turn down the chance to influence any president.

If he were in a position to advise Trump on education policy, Guthrie said, he’d advise him to at least preserve things like the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Assessment of Educational Progress when it comes to the federal role in education, as well as funding for special education in some form. Guthrie would also want the federal government to help develop better assessments. But he said he’d also tell Trump that eliminating the U.S. Department of Education altogether wouldn’t be worth the political capital it would take.

“My first position would be, it’s not worth your time,” Guthrie said he’d tell Trump about tossing the Education Department overboard. “But if you’re going to do it, give consideration to these dimensions.”

Trump’s Remarks on Education

What has Trump said about education? Not a lot. He wants the federal government to get rid of the Common Core State Standards, something Washington cannot currently do by fiat. He likes local school boards. He wrinkles his nose at American students’ international test scores. And he wants the Education Department to be eliminated or slashed way down—but also, perhaps, he thinks education should be a top-three priority for the federal government, according to a remark he made in a March campaign town hall. That’s pretty much it. Trump has yet to release a detailed K-12 policy platform, although he isn’t the only 2016 presidential candidate who hasn’t done so.

So Trump’s remark, as relayed by Guthrie, seems to jibe with Trump’s soundbite-heavy approach to education on the stump and during debates. And, more broadly—as we wrote about at roughly the same time Guthrie says he met with Trump—education has largely been sidelined as a policy issue during the presidential campaign.

Then again, the encounter Guthrie said he had with Trump occurred roughly five months ago.

It’s not clear who, if anyone, has been advising Trump on education policy. Back in March, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said Trump had reached out to him to (likely) talk about education. But since then, Bennett has not publicly mentioned any discussions with Trump about education. (We tried to contact Bennett at the time through his radio show, but did not hear back.)

Trump did say back in a March debate that retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a former GOP presidential candidate, would play a prominent role in education in his administration, but did not specify the role Carson would play.

Photos: In this March 14, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump holds a plane-side rally in a hangar at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, Ohio. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File); Trump talks during a campaign stop last September in Keene, N.H. (AP Photo/Steven Senne); file photo of James Guthrie.

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