Like so many in Washington and, indeed, around the country, I’ve been processing both the stunning election results from last week and, more urgently, what a Trump administration will mean for education in 2017 and over the next four years. With the caveat that we are only a week into President-Elect Trump’s transition, here are some initial thoughts about education policy in the age of Trump.
- Nobody knows nothing. Sure that’s not the most grammatically correct statement, but it most accurately captures this moment of widespread uncertainty many of the “experts” have about Trump’s vision for federal education policy. Having never previously served in elected office, Trump doesn’t have any kind of track record in education. The presidential campaign was notably devoid of any discussion about education among the candidates and Trump’s education platform is equally sparse—consisting mainly of a call for greater school choice and a repeal of the Common Core State Standards. To a lesser extent, he’s mentioned an interest in reducing college costs and debt as well as giving tax breaks for child care.
- Do you see a butterfly or a spider? Because of both the lack of specifics for and the sometimes contradictory nature of Trump’s campaign positions, most analyses of Trump’s vision are actually a Rorschach test of that person’s policy perspective. So, for instance, while conservative Republicans are cheering the expansion of school choice programs, they are surprisingly sanguine, if not outright dismissive, when it comes to things like the call to repeal the Common Core—a plank that, if taken to its logical conclusion, would require the federal government to dictate academic standards to the states in such a massive federal intrusion into state authority over education it would make even Democrats blush.
- There is a big difference between can and allow. Republicans will control both chambers in Congress and the White House for the first time since the early months of the George W. Bush administration. With regard to number two above, there seems to be a confidence that the Republican-controlled Congress will be a bulwark against any of President Trump’s more heterodox education goals. Perhaps this will be the case, but the new commander in chief has shown to be entirely comfortable with his rebellious outsider status. More to the point, there is an important distinction between Congress voting against such plans taking effect after they’ve been introduced and discouraging such proposals from being offered in the first place.
- People are the policy. Because of the ambiguous nature of Trump’s education goals and the sense that they won’t be a primary focus of his administration, the people he appoints to lead the U.S. Department of Education will take on outsized importance in establishing the priorities of the Department. Names that have been floated for Secretary of Education include former District of Columbia Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos. There are plenty of other names that have been mentioned—too many to list here—so stay tuned!
- Whither ESSA? Implementation of ESSA continues in the states, but the pending issuance of the law’s final regulations next month now seems anticlimactic. Given the timing of their release, the new regulations were always going to be reviewed by a new administration, but now they will be doubly scrutinized by the Trump team. Add to that the complaints of congressional leaders like Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that the draft regulations would overstep the Department’s authority and undermine that statute’s provisions and it seems more than likely that many of the soon-to-be rules will be rolled back at some point next year. In particular, the already controversial proposed supplement-not-supplant rule will be rescinded in 2017 with near certainty. And departmental review of new state plans next year will likely be looser than previously expected.
- The return of portability. You may remember “portability” as the unsuccessful proposal during the debate on ESSA to voucherize Title I. It will be coming back on steroids next year as the foundation of Trump’s $20 billion investment in promoting and expanding public and private school choice. The Trump campaign said it will “immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice. This will be done by reprioritizing existing federal dollars.” It’s unclear if this “new” money will be coming from existing education programs or from other noneducation areas of the budget. If it does come from education, it will most likely come from the largest K–12 funding sources: Title I ($14.9 billion) and IDEA ($12.7 billion).
In my next blog post, I’ll give you a cheat sheet on what to keep an eye on as the earliest indicators of the direction and priorities of the Trump administration in education. In the meantime, if you are interested in learning even more about what’s in store for education politics and policies in 2017, please check out our upcoming Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy, which will be held from January 22 to 24 in Washington, D.C. Learn about the program agenda and register here.