Social Studies

Trump Targets History Class as Well as School Choice in Bid for Second Term

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 26, 2020 11 min read
President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a roundtable discussion on the Federal Commission on School Safety Report at the White House in December 2018.

President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 having dealt with education almost exclusively in sound bites. While that’s no longer true nearly four years later as he accepts the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term, perhaps nothing stands out about Trump’s position on education like his rhetoric pressuring classrooms to reopen as the nation struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the way the administration has addressed schools’ response to the virus might end up being Trump’s most prominent education legacy, his reelection bid is also showcasing his ongoing support for his signature K-12 policy issue of school choice.

And if his rhetoric in recent months and messaging at the party’s national convention are any indication, he might be interested in opening up a new political battle over education, or at least reinvigorating one: what students are taught about American history.

Both themes were on display as Trump accepted his party’s nomination at a White House speech on the final night of the Republican Party’s convention Aug. 27.

“We want our sons and daughters to know the truth: America is the greatest and most exceptional nation in the history of the world,” Trump said. He pledged to “fully restore patriotic education to our schools, and always protect free speech on college campuses.”

The president also said Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden opposes school choice and has vowed to shut down charter schools, and said, “In a second term, I will expand charter schools and provide school choice to every family in America.”

(The Democratic Party platform calls for new limits on and additional accountability for charter schools, but does not say they should be banned outright.)

The President’s Four-Year Track Record

In the past four years, Trump and his education team have galvanized many choice supporters and helped deliver a few small-scale wins that are in large part the work of Congress. Separately, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has repealed high-profile K-12 initiatives from the Obama administration that involve difficult debates about civil rights, safety, and race. And Trump has approved significant federal laws governing career-technical education and school safety.

Yet the Trump administration has repeatedly failed to coax a sweeping expansion of vouchers, tuition tax credits, or similar forms of school choice out of Congress. In 2016, the president pledged $20 billion to expand choice, but hasn’t come anywhere close to that number, as national partisan divisions alter the political landscape for school choice advocates, perhaps permanently.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education’s annual budget has grown on Trump’s watch by nearly $5 billion to about $73 billion, despite his pledge four years ago to shrink or even eliminate it.

And the controversy Trump touched off in education politics when he nominated DeVos for education secretary has never fully abated; it might have grown during the pandemic due to his pressure for in-person classes to resume. If his interest extends to instruction in classrooms, it might intensify.

A New Front: Teaching ‘American Exceptionalism’

In late August, Trump unveiled a series of priorities for his second term that featured just two bullet points for education. One was a pledge to expand school choice. But the other was a call to “Teach American Exceptionalism.”

In his speech commemorating the Fourth of July this year, for example, Trump said the nation’s schools teach children to “hate their own country” through exposing them to a distorted and overwhelmingly negative view of American history. The Republican National Convention this month has also showcased concerns that today’s students are not taught to respect the nation’s founders like they should.

It’s unlikely the president would be raising this issue now without the presence (and criticism) of the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning essay collection published in the New York Times last year that puts slavery at the heart of American history, politics, and economics, said Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Smarick noted that the project’s quick path into classrooms was “worrisome” to many people. But he added that Trump is also channeling long-standing conservative concerns expressed in places like the 2016 GOP platform, which said education should in part be focused on the “handing over of a cultural identity.”

“It’s a proxy war,” Smarick said of Trump’s recent rhetoric. “It’s really about: How do people think about America, and how is that translated into our schools?”

Successes and Disappointments: Devos and School Choice

But school choice—or what DeVos for well over a year has called “education freedom” to cover a suite of policies beyond things like vouchers—continues to define much of how the Trump administration discusses education.

In June, the president called it “the civil rights issue of all time.” Trump and other Republicans repeatedly point to choice as a way to provide children of color in struggling traditional public schools with new opportunities, in a year when their parents could be the decisive factor in the presidential election.

Due in part to the administration and previous work by supporters, polls have shown that voters across ideological groups and demographics back the idea of school choice, said John Schilling, the president of the American Federation of Children. (DeVos previously served as chairwoman of the organization, which supports various forms of K-12 choice.)

“I think the administration has been good for school choice,” Schilling said.

Annual federal funding for charter expansion has risen by a little more than $100 million over the course of Trump’s term to $440 million; the increase was approved by Congress over the first two years of Trump’s presidency with support from the administration.

In addition to that support, the administration “has acknowledged the value of charter schools, the value that they bring to public education, and … to the Black and brown families that charter schools predominantly serve,” said Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Elsewhere, the 2017 GOP tax overhaul signed by Trump changed rules for 529 savings plans to allow them to be used for K-12 private school expenses, not just postsecondary costs. This was a “small victory,” said Ben DeGrow, the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, which supports K-12 choice and a limited federal role in education.

“He’s sending all the signals that he wants to make this a signature issue in this second term,” DeGrow said of school choice, noting that the president has undoubtedly raised the issue’s national profile. “But getting anything done is going to require a broad, bipartisan coalition.”

Congress has rebuffed efforts from the Trump administration and its allies to pass a groundbreaking school choice initiative that includes private schools, even when the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress in the first two years of the president’s term. And it increasingly looks as if calls from DeVos and others to expand education choice to families struggling to help their children during the pandemic will be ignored.

Schilling said bluntly, “I’m very disappointed” about this shortcoming, and blamed intransigence among Democrats and their allies in teachers’ unions as a primary reason for it.

Ever since DeVos’ controversial 2017 confirmation hearing, Democrats have been vehemently opposed to the Trump administration’s education priorities, and have channeled that opposition into the 2020 election campaign.

Democratic candidates singled DeVos out during the primary as a Trump cabinet member they would get rid of. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pledged to revive Obama-era priorities such as voluntary school integration efforts and guidance dealing with education civil rights.

And Democrats as well as their allies have decried Trump’s declarations that schools should resume regular instruction during the pandemic as well as his push for private school choice

“Democrats oppose private school vouchers and other policies that divert taxpayer-funded resources away from the public school system,” the party’s 2020 platform states.

DeGrow said that as far as Trump goes, “School choice could also benefit from having somebody who’s better at building coalitions,” especially if Republicans don’t regain control of both chambers of Congress during a second Trump term. But both DeGrow and Schilling said that the role states play in expanding choice is essential.

“At the Republican convention, school choice has been mentioned a lot,” Schilling said. “Governors do take note. State legislators do take note. And I think that’s important. It’s up to us as advocates to do a better job of convincing policymakers [at the federal level] that this is good policy.”

DeGrow said the administration’s Education Freedom Scholarships plan, introduced last year in Congress, where it has been largely ignored by lawmakers, is a good model going forward for Trump. That’s because it would ultimately empower states to expand or create new choice programs and avoid what he called the “heavy fingerprint” of Washington, even though it would use federal tax credits to do so.

Charter Schools in a Tough Spot

Charters are in a unique and perhaps difficult position as Trump heads from a first to potentially a second term.

At the strictly federal level, charter supporters cheered earlier increases to federal backing for their growth. But they were disconcerted when Trump proposed rolling the federal grant program for charter expansion into a large block grant, thereby ending dedicated funding for the schools; the administration denied that it was truly cutting funding for charters by doing so.

“For an administration that wants to be known as one that’s supported choice, we felt that it was the wrong move, and we certainly didn’t like it,” Rees said.

There are also concerns among charter school backers that voters might increasingly and mistakenly consider charters something primarily if not exclusively backed by Republicans.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have sought to cut the dedicated $440 million in aid for charter growth, even as charter advocates decry what they see as the party’s betrayal of Black and Latino Democrats who benefit from and support those schools. For a ten-year period starting in 2009, enrollment in charter schools increased by nearly two million students, according to Rees’ group.

Yet many in the education community, including charter school advocates, have also opposed Trump in situations that aren’t strictly about schools but which resonate across politics, such as his so-far unsuccessful effort to undo President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that grants legal protections to certain undocumented immigrants.

Rees, whose organization has supported DACA, said this reflects the longevity and political maturity of the charter sector and how many of its members’ concerns reflect those found in traditional public schools.

The two most helpful things Trump could do for charters in a second term, Rees said, would be to shift his support back to having dedicated federal funding for charters, and to empower “state and local messengers who are benefiting from charter schools’’ to be their primary ambassadors.

“President Trump’s rhetoric and Secretary DeVos’ image in the court of public opinion have raised questions about how effective they are in being messengers for the charter school community,” she said.

Future Battles Over What Is Taught in Schools?

Separate from the administration, it’s not clear that Trump’s 2020 campaign puts a lot of emphasis on the fine-grain details of federal education policy.

As of this week, a website maintained by Trump’s 2020 campaign branded “Promises Kept” said his administration has approved plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law governing K-12 schools, from 35 states and the District of Columbia. In fact, DeVos had approved ESSA plans from all 50 states and other jurisdictions by October 2017.

The campaign website also highlights changes backed and signed into law by Trump that deal with career-technical education and school safety. In 2018, Trump also created a DeVos-led school safety commission in response to shootings at a high school in Parkland, Fla. That commission led to DeVos repealing Obama guidance intended to address racial disparities in school discipline.

In a similar vein, she has also repealed Obama guidance regarding transgender students’ access to facilities and how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and assault. (Speakers at the RNC have highlighted the party’s views on school discipline and gender identity.)

Battles over these education disputes that combine critiques of politics and culture predate the Trump era and have helped define its approach to schools over his first term. But Trump’s focus on “American exceptionalism” could represent something new.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also captured this sentiment when he introduced legislation this summer that would ban federal funding from supporting the use of curricula based on the 1619 Project in schools. Trump has not commented publicly on Cotton’s bill, which has yet to get momentum on Capitol Hill and runs afoul of the law barring federal involvement in curriculum, although the president has criticized the 1619 Project itself. Of course, such a prohibition might not reduce in any way the issue’s political power.

Smarick of the Manhattan Institute noted that to a certain extent, supporting education pluralism and choice while also pushing for history to be taught in a certain way are in conflict. And he noted that many conservatives spent years battling against federal involvement in schools around the adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

“It’s a little funny now to have a conservative weighing in on what is taught in the classroom,” he said. “This is going to be a matter of teachers and superintendents and school boards making a decision of what is taught.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2020 edition of Education Week as Trump Targets History Class, School Choice in Making His Bid for Second Term

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