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Year One Check-In: What’s Trump Done on K-12 Compared to Other Presidents?

By Alyson Klein — January 15, 2018 7 min read
President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., on Nov. 19, 2016. 
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President Donald Trump was sworn in one year ago this week, and at this point in their tenure, the past five presidents had gotten at least one splashy K-12 accomplishment over the finish line—or come close to it.

So how does Trump—who hardly made education a central part of his 2016 presidential bid—stack up?

“I would certainly have to give him, in comparison to any of the others, a failing grade,” said Christopher T. Cross, who served as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education during President George H.W. Bush’s tenure and now runs an education consulting firm.

But Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, thinks Trump is off to a strong start. “I think they’ve struck a really good balance between using the bully pulpit and advancing [school] choice” through the recent tax overhaul, she said.

Trump, she said, has made some important headway in allowing families to use college-savings plans for K-12 private school tuition, and in scrapping regulations.

What did Trump’s predecessors have to show for themselves at this point in their presidencies? Here’s a quick summary, with more details below.

  • President Barack Obama had signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included some $100 billion for education and set the stage for Race to the Top and the expanded School Improvement Grant programs.
  • President George W. Bush had put his signature on the No Child Left Behind Act, the first reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require annual testing, among other things.
  • President Bill Clinton was well on his way to getting Goals 2000, which authorized nearly $400 million for states and districts to develop education reform plans, enacted.
  • President George H.W. Bush had gotten nearly every governor to attend an education summit in Charlottesville, Va., and was putting the finishing touches on a set of national education goals.
  • And President Ronald Reagan was able to get some education programs consolidated into block grants through an update of the nation’s main education law, while pushing to scrap the U.S. Department of Education.

Trump came into office promising a $20 billion initiative for school choice, but got only language in the recent tax overhaul allowing families to use 529 college savings plans for K-12 private school tuition and expenses.

He also pledged to cut red tape, get rid of unnecessary regulation, and slim down the size of the Education Department. Along those lines, he was able to work with Republicans in Congress to scrap Obama-era accountability regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act and teacher preparation. But it’s still unclear if there will be a broader regulatory reduction, or if the size of the Education Department will seriously shrink.

Trump may have missed his best chance to get something big done on K-12, said Jack Jennings, who served as an aide to Democrats on Capitol Hill for nearly three decades. If history is any guide, he likely won’t have better luck going forward.

“A president generally has the most effect in the first year” when his popularity tends to be at the highest point, Jennings said. Republicans are expected to lose House seats in the 2018 midterm election, and some may be looking to distance themselves from the president, not run out and embrace his proposed cuts to education or school choice agenda, Jennings said.

But Burke sees the extension of 529 plans to K-12 expenses as “a big deal, and maybe a bigger deal than a lot of folks realize” at this point. The regulatory rollbacks were “big victories” for local control, she said. And she thinks that the tax bill, which will slow revenue growth, could lay the foundation for some serious—and her view, necessary—cuts to the department’s budget.

Still, Burke acknowledges that Trump didn’t get as many big-ticket education items over the finish line as many of his recent predecessors. But in her mind, that’s a good thing.

“I would be worried if we saw them coming out of the gate trying to push huge, sweeping national education policy,” she said. The country, she thinks, should be moving in the opposite direction. “I think caution is wise, and I’m glad they are practicing it.”

So what has Trump accomplished in his first year on K-12? And how much did his recent predecessors get done on this issue? Here’s a quick rundown:

President Donald Trump

  • Signed into law tax overhaul legislation that will allow families to use 529 college-saving plans for K-12 private school tuition and expenses. The tax law may also indirectly squeeze K-12 spending at the state and local level because many families will no longer be able to deduct as large a share of their state and local taxes from their federal tax burden.
  • Congress and Trump scrapped the Obama administration’s ESSA regulations on accountability
  • U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ditched dozens of regulations she said were duplicative or outdated. The Trump administration also scrapped Obama-era guidance dealing with sexual assault on college campuses, and giving transgender students the right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Vice President Joe Biden stands behind President Barack Obama as he signs the $787 billion economic stimulus bill at the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver on Feb. 17, 2009.

President Barack Obama

  • Signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February of 2009, his second month in office. The law included nearly $50 billion in grants to states to help avert teacher layoffs and cuts to K-12 spending.
  • ARRA also included $4 billion for competitive grants to entice states to improve their standards, tests, school turnarounds, data-systems and teacher quality initiatives. That money eventually became the Race to the Top program, which gave grants to a dozen states of up to $700 million in exchange for agreeing to evaluate teachers in part on test scores and adopt uniform standards aimed at preparing students for college and the workforce.
  • The prospect of securing a Race to the Top grant enticed more than 40 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the Common Core State Standards, developed by governors and state chiefs.
  • ARRA included $3 billion for the School Improvement Grant program, which the Obama administration revamped. The supercharged version called for states to adopt dramatic turnaround strategies, including firing a principal and getting rid of half of a school’s staff.
  • And the recovery law also provided $650 million to help school districts scale up promising practices. The money eventually became the Investing in Innovation program.
President George W. Bush signs No Child Left Behind law on Jan. 8, 2002, at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio. From left are Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Education Secretary Rod Paige, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, woman at right unidentified. Children with Bush are Tez Taylor, left, and Cecilia Pallcio, right.

President George W. Bush

  • Signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law on Jan. 8, 2002. The law, which was the first update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in eight years, was the biggest expansion of the federal role in K-12 in history.
  • NCLB called for states to test their students annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Schools that did not make “adequate yearly progress” under the law were subject to increasing severe sanctions. Students in schools that did not make AYP were given the opportunity to transfer to a better-performing school, or given access to free tutoring. And teachers had to be “highly qualified,” meaning that they had to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they were teaching and state certification.
President Bill Clinton, under the watchful eye of Education Secretary Richard Riley, signs the Goals 2000 Educate America Act at the Zamorana Fine Arts Academy Elementary School in San Diego, Calif., on March 31, 1994.

President Bill Clinton

President George H.W. Bush addresses the nation's governors at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on Sept. 29, 1989, at the conclusion of the two-day education summit. At left is Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos and at right is Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.

President George H.W. Bush

  • Convened a summit in Charlottesville, Va., in the fall of 1989, attended by almost all of the nation’s governors. The summit, only the third such gathering in American history, culminated in a promise to set educational goals. Bush announced the goals in his State of the Union address early in 1990.
  • The goals included a pledge to ensure that every child would leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having “demonstrated competency” in English, math, science, geography, and history.
  • The goals helped accelerate the standards-based reform movement, already underway in many states. And the summit helped lay the groundwork for the Common Core State Standards and NCLB, experts say.

President Ronald Reagan

  • Signed an ESEA reauthorization that consolidated smaller education programs into a block grant. The list included programs aimed at improving students’ basic skills, state leadership, emergency school aid, community schools, and alcohol and drug abuse prevention, science teacher training, and career education, according to the CQ Almanac. The legislation also reduced regulatory and paperwork requirements for states and districts. This reauthorization ushered in a period of depressed spending under the federal law.
  • Reagan tried to consolidate Title I and special education funding into the block grant as well, but Congress nixed that proposal. He also tried to eliminate the Education Department, but wasn’t successful.

Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.