By Laurence Peters, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Education
As the reality of the Trump election sinks in, many are now somewhat wearily reflecting on how various parts of Trump’s policies would affect their world. In my world of K-12 education policy, there is a potential for some quite dramatic change so it may be worth spending a few moments contemplating how a Trump presidency may affect our lives as educators if only to distract us from some of the more sordid elements of this bitter election season.
Three themes seem likely to take center stage when it comes to Trump’s views on education. A sector that he chose not to focus on very much during the campaign, preferring instead to rail against unfair trade deals and ill-advised wars. From his campaign literature, however, it is possible to discern at least three goals that will likely drive the agenda.
- Downsizing, if not eliminating, the U.S. Department of Education
- Promoting school choice and charter schools
- Reducing the federal role in all areas, particularly in relation to promoting education equity
Let’s take each one in order. The U.S. Department of Education has been the subject of constant right-wing vitriol since President Jimmy Carter created it in 1979. Reagan vowed to abolish it and was prevented by an education secretary who was curiously interested in keeping his job. He commissioned a panel to write A Nation At Risk that linked our educational performance to the economy and defense in ways that resonated in the halls of Congress and most critically the business community. The report’s unexpectedly warm reception squashed all talk of dismantling the department vital to monitoring progress toward widely agreed-upon goals and objectives. Lightning may well not strike twice, but we should remember that Senator Lamar Alexander is chair of the Senate Health Education and Labor Committee (HELP) and, as a former Secretary of Education, has shown no indication that he wants to reduce his committee’s jurisdiction over the newly minted ESSA, which he did more than most to help craft. There is no large part of the Trump coalition howling for the relatively small bureaucracy to be dismantled and plenty in the business community who would sooner have the fight be about abolishing the hated EPA. Moreover, if Trump does move to abolish the department, he would be wasting a lot of his limited political capital on confronting not just the teacher unions (a core part of the Democratic coalition), but a good segment of state and local government that relies on federal grants and expertise at a time when education budgets have been shrinking. What is more likely to happen is that the department’s budget for staff and for what might be considered non-core programs, such as after-school, adult education and special education, will be cut to pay for the new school-choice and charter schools initiatives that will signal that Trump has brought change to Washington.
Trump’s major agenda is his stated intention that he wants to add an additional federal investment of $20 billion toward school choice. That is a large sum and, since it is a concrete figure, you can probably place more trust that he will in fact deliver. Since the charter school movement emerged some 25 years ago, there has been a strong steady increase in the numbers of charters in the United States, and they now educate 6 percent of the students in this country. But the dramatic growth of publically funded charters, in particular, has not come without controversy as teacher unions and a variety of education groups complain about reverse segregation and lower standards. The ballot referendum to expand the number of charter schools in Massachusetts was defeated. Trump promises to boost charter schools goes along with his belief that both parties have been far too accepting of the status quo in the American big cities. The new billions will be reprioritizing existing federal dollars, which as mentioned above is likely to come out of the hide of the budget for the historically forgotten groups that attracted the federal interest in the first place. Politically this will be a much harder fight to overcome—first, because Democrats remain split on the issue as to whether charter schools may well be the tonic needed to shake up hundreds, if not thousands, of underperforming schools whose monopolies continue to go unchallenged and, second, because there may well be no need for new legislation. There are plenty of authorities in current legislation that would allow the reprogramming of these funds for charter schools, but there is every reason to believe that they would be able to pass even broader legislation in the first 100 days that would link this program to a broader anti-poverty initiative that would (as the campaign literature sets out) invite each state to “contribute another $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice, on top of the $20 billion in federal dollars” that someone in the Trump backroom works out to be “$12,000 in school-choice funds to every K-12 student who today lives in poverty.” No one at this point, though, can really say for sure how this initiative will end up looking once the various lobbying communities on both sides of the issue have had their say and then the bills get digested and eventually spat out by the relevant congressional committees.
Finally, as mentioned, we are likely to see a new Trump Administration oversee a massive rollback on the federal role when it comes to preserving educational equity for all kinds of populations, not least African American, Hispanic and special-needs students. Currently there is a fight between the Obama Administration and Republican lawmakers over the intent of the ESSA language related to the need for Title One to supplement, not supplant, state dollars for special populations. The GOP wants to insist that states and locals can use their federal dollars however they want and so, if they decide they do not want to spend the funds they were allocating to poor schools, they no longer have to because the federal dollars can make up the difference. Today it is much clearer that poor schools under a Trump Administration will stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in potential funding.
So we end up with a rather dismal picture for the federal role in education as we have known it. It looks now like the recent battles in Congress that led to the long-awaited passage of the landmark Elementary and Secondary School Act, now renamed the Every Child Succeed Act, was a herald for a large retreat from the former federal role as the funds were virtually block-granted to the states with limited amounts of controls and oversight. Gary Orfield, the noted civil rights historian, claimed the new law stripped the federal funding of its “leverage for any national purpose.” Under a new Trump Administration, we can expect more of the same. But as one wise saw said who helped me survive the Reagan administration as a House Democratic staffer on the brunt end of his similar “drain-the-swamp” anti-Washington rhetoric, “there are no permanent defeats or permanent victories.” What we have in this country is a democracy still expressed in the three branches of government, as well as a free press and an active advocacy community.
But to make it all work and to achieve any kind of progress we have to participate. We have to learn from the past and make the best arguments we can based on values and reason, as well as reliable data and research-based evidence. We also need to listen to our opponents and be prepared to engage them in good faith to seek common ground. That is what “no permanent victories and defeats” is all about. We are all part of the same learning community on the same journey to strive to create a more perfect union.