College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Education Policy Ideas for President Trump

January 18, 2017 13 min read
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In the wake of the 2016 election, Education Week Commentary asked five education policy experts their thoughts on the following question: What should be the K-12 policy priority for the Trump administration? And what levers would need to be pulled to make that a reality? The responses, which come from across the policy spectrum, highlight a range of ideas.

Work Across the Aisle
Catherine Brown is the vice president for education policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress.


In a televised interview last August, presidential candidate Donald Trump said he wanted to cut the U.S. Department of Education down to “shreds.” His central K-12 education proposal would shift more than half of federal K-12 education funding into a voucher-style program—a policy even a GOP-controlled Congress rejected in 2015. And then, the president-elect nominated Betsy DeVos—a longtime champion of private school vouchers—to serve as our country’s next secretary of education.

With such hostility toward public education, Trump underscores his aim to privatize education—from cradle to career—as well as his plan to scale back the federal Department of Education’s resources.

For many, the question the country is left with now is how far will Trump go and can he be stopped?

First, let’s be clear about what President-elect Trump should do: The new administration should focus on using public dollars to strengthen schools and continue to improve on record-high graduation rates. Trump’s administration should also support charters, which are innovative public schools.

But private school vouchers, like those supported by Betsy DeVos, are clearly ineffective: A report from the Brookings Institution in May 2016 showed students who made use of those vouchers performed worse on assessments than their peers who remained in public schools. 
Second, the federal government should maintain its focus on young people who are most at risk by providing targeted resources to disadvantaged students in public schools. Funding for special education services for nearly 7 million students with disabilities and supplemental funding to 56,000 high-poverty schools serving 24 million low-income students should continue. These funds should supplement state and local resources, not supplant them.

Third, Trump should modernize and elevate the teaching profession by investing in programs that support teachers and encourage states and school districts to address all aspects of the teacher pipeline. Teachers are being asked to do more every day to ensure students can compete with their global peers, yet teachers receive inadequate pay, support, and preparation.

Finally, the new president must reassure many of the students and families who felt endangered by his campaign rhetoric. The Education Department’s office for civil rights should aggressively enforce existing civil rights laws and make sure that schools are safe and supportive places to learn for all students, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or disability status.

While uncertainty remains on how Trump will govern—and his ability to actually get things done—the nation’s schoolchildren need to be certain that he will help all of them succeed.

Empower States
Jonathan Butcher is the education director at the Goldwater Institute, headquartered in Phoenix, and a senior fellow at the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee.


There is evidence that President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign proposal to divert $20 billion in federal funds to help children attend private schools of choice may sound appealing to many people. A 2015 survey of black voters in four states from the Black Alliance for Educational Options found that 60 percent supported private school scholarships. Another survey, by the American Federation for Children (chaired until recently by Betsy DeVos, the incoming president’s choice for U.S. secretary of education), found that 68 percent of white voters likely supported more school choices.

President Barack Obama’s opposition to such ideas proved an obstacle to creating and expanding parental choices, especially in Washington. Renewing Washington’s Opportunity Scholarships—which help low-income families afford private school tuition in our nation’s capital—should be a priority for Trump’s first 100 days.

And then he should reconsider his larger campaign promise.

Recent examples from education policy are instructive as to why the federal government should not use promises of financial help to coerce states to change their laws. Federal support for the Common Core State Standards caused a clash of ideas among families, taxpayers, and state and federal lawmakers. In 2012, 90 percent of respondents to an Education Next survey supported the common core, but after years of wrangling over Washington’s role and a raft of YouTube videos created by parents and students frustrated with fuzzy math, support dropped to 50 percent in 2015.

Did parents and teachers change their minds about higher standards, or can Washington not control the impact of its decisions—which affect children in nearly 132,000 public and private schools across 50 states?

The answer is likely the latter.

Parental choices in education differ from one place to another by design and per student needs. For example, Arizona’s education savings accounts allow families to use preloaded Visa cards to buy educational products and services. A similar law in Florida has the state pay educational vendors directly or reimburse parents for their education-related purchases. Georgia has four kinds of charter school options, with different authorizers; South Carolina has two.

Betsy DeVos helped make parental choices in education successful for thousands of children around the country through her work at the American Federation for Children. As secretary, her advocacy for more success surrounding parental choice in education will be critical.

But the new administration should not design the same education choices for every state—such standardization is what has forced traditional schools to try to be all things to all children instead of focusing on the areas in which a traditional school may excel.

Leave parental choices in education to state and local policymakers so they can respond to families. Washington’s absence would be a welcome change.

Expand Opportunity
Matt Gandal is the president and founder of the Education Strategy Group, a consulting firm specializing in K-12, higher education, and the workforce. Previously, he served as a senior adviser to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and as the executive vice president of Achieve.


If this presidential election revealed one thing, it’s that many Americans don’t feel secure about their economic future. That should place education at the top of the agenda in states and communities, because it is America’s economic engine.

President-elect Donald Trump and his administration should forge a stronger bond between education and the economy by supporting existing strategies in high-performing states and encouraging tighter connections between the K-12 sector, higher education, and the workforce. Here are six recommendations to help accomplish those tasks:

Maintain a steady focus on postsecondary preparation and success for all. Nearly all the jobs created after the Great Recession required postsecondary education or training. Those who don’t earn a meaningful credential after high school—a two- or four-year college degree or certificate with demonstrated employer value—will struggle in the United States. Education policy at the federal, state, and local levels should be driven by clear goals for increasing credential attainment, and all educators should feel mutually responsible for achieving these goals.

Make career preparation a high priority. An increasing number of states are focused on improving the quality of career education, providing all students access to pathways that combine rigorous academics with work-based learning opportunities. This work holds great potential to provide young people—in both rural and urban areas—with a meaningful path to the workforce. Reauthorization of the Perkins Act provides an opportunity for the new administration to lead by emphasizing high-quality pathways that lead to credentials of value.

Don’t undermine states’ efforts to establish high standards. Although standards have become politicized, the intent in most states has been right: to raise expectations for students so that they are well prepared at the end of high school for the demands of college and careers. The Every Student Succeeds Act rightly reiterates that standards are the province of states, not the federal government. The administration should resist any temptation to get involved with standards.

Support strong accountability systems. The administration should expect that states continue to assess and publicly report school performance, creating greater transparency around results. It should support states’ efforts to implement quality assessments, emphasizing college- and career-ready measures that open doors to students’ futures. And it should encourage strong data systems that safeguard student privacy while disaggregating information on student subgroups and forging connections across K-12, higher education, and the workforce. All publicly funded schools—traditional and charter alike—should be subject to the same rigorous performance expectations, with a deep focus on closing gaps.

Use the limited federal role to push for K-12, higher education, and workforce alignment. Ownership for student success must be shared across systems. This means establishing common priorities, removing red tape that hinders cross-sector partnerships, and creating coherence across federal legislation, including ESSA, the Perkins Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. When the business, higher education, and K-12 sectors align efforts, it drives greater educational and economic opportunity for all youths. This work must be incentivized or the sectors will remain siloed.

Honor diversity. Diversity—of background and opinion—is what makes America great. In classrooms, just as in business, young people encounter individuals from all walks of life. It is in these interactions that students develop the communication, collaboration, and joint problem-solving skills that are fundamental for student success. Our public schools are a reflection of our great democracy and should be a safe space for children of all races and backgrounds to learn and thrive together. Our policies and use of the bully pulpit should honor this great tradition.

Leading states and systems are raising expectations, setting ambitious credential-attainment goals, and expanding opportunities in their quest to get more students ready for success in the economy. This work should be acknowledged, scaled, and accelerated so that youths in all communities can attain the promise of a prosperous future.

Don’t Privatize Education
Jack Jennings wrote Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2015) based on 27 years of experience as the key education expert for the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and 17 years as president and CEO of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, which he founded.


During the campaign, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump promised to respect state and local control of public education. With his nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. secretary of education, President-elect Trump has tossed that promise aside, saying that she will help him reform the education system based on one idea—privatization.

Truth be told, candidate Trump had earlier signaled that his promise to respect state and local control was fraudulent because he pledged to spend $20 billion on charter schools and tuition vouchers for children to attend private schools. Since DeVos’ work has been to promote those ideas, the federal government will most likely be forcefully changing education regardless of state and local opinion.

For many years, Congress has hotly debated this issue of control, and on a bipartisan basis passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015. The law limits the federal government’s power by emphasizing state and local decisionmaking. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program were at the root of this debate. Those policies moved the federal government front and center in school reform and precipitated a powerful kickback from many states and local school districts.

President-elect Trump wants to reverse the course of an intrusive federal government dictating to states how to run schools. What will the Republicans who control Congress do with his proposals? Will they stick with their position that state and local school districts should control education? Or, was that only a trick to oppose the outgoing president? Will they be two-faced now that a Republican will be president?

Research shows that school choice has, at best, a mixed record of success. Even President-elect Trump has written: “Look, I know that people both for and against school choice can roll out endless arguments and statistics showing charter schools are either very successful or make no difference at all. This is a legitimate debate.”

His proposal, though, would have Washington dictating policies to states without clear evidence of effectiveness. That is DeVos’ record: promoting privatization without solid research showing conclusively that it will work.

The Trump administration should honor the idea of state and local control of education contained in ESSA. The states are busy making their own plans for school improvement, and they deserve time to show what they can do.

More broadly, why do conservatives argue for limited federal involvement unless it is something they want? Will state and local leaders let them get by with that?

Has anyone asked educators and not billionaires what really makes a difference in schooling?

Make School Choice Fair
Kimberly Jenkins Robinson is a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Richmond, Va. She is co-editor with Charles J. Ogletree Jr. of The Enduring Legacy of Rodriguez: Creating New Pathways to Equal Educational Opportunity (Harvard Education Press, 2015). She served as an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Education from 1999 to 2004.


The Trump administration should prioritize ensuring that all students have equal access to excellent schools. Many children today are denied the opportunity to attend an excellent school because most states tolerate the provision of low-quality schools to children in many poor and minority neighborhoods. These disparities in educational opportunity greatly harm our national interests in a strong economy, an effective military, and an educated and engaged citizenry.

Given that the incoming administration has signaled a strong desire to reduce federal involvement in education, it should incentivize states to reduce and eliminate educational opportunity gaps, rather than adopt federal mandates. The administration should offer federal research, technical assistance, and funding to states that present research-based plans to achieve this important national goal.

If the new administration encourages greater school choice to build a stronger education system, as press reports suggest it might, it should condition federal funding for choice on state-developed standards that insist on high-quality choice options as well as nondiscrimination in admission to and the administration of new educational opportunities. The Trump administration also should promote the provision and expansion of excellent educational opportunities. For example, this can be done by encouraging innovation in new educational delivery models that take advantage of technology to expand access to excellent teaching and rigorous curricula to students who live in areas lacking these resources.

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as Policy Suggestions For the New Administration


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