‘Yuge’ changes in store for American education?
Education | Donald Trump promised big school reform, but shift could be more subtle
by Leigh Jones
Posted 11/11/16, 03:22 pm
Conservative education reformers went into Tuesday’s election prepared to play defense for the next four—or eight—years, fighting the continued advance of a federally focused education policy playbook. But Donald Trump’s surprise victory upended the reform fight, putting conservatives on offense and giving them the chance to make their case for big changes.
Based on his campaign comments, big changes are exactly what Trump wants. The president-elect promised to allocate $20 billion for school choice and shutter the Department of Education. He also vowed to crush controversial Common Core standards. But like most campaign promises, analysts don’t expect Trump’s stump-speech rhetoric to translate into word-for-word policy changes.
The biggest difference between the Obama and Trump administrations likely will be one of emphasis—from the federal government giving orders to state educators retaking the lead.
That might not generate headlines about what Trump officials do, said Andy Smarick, an education expert with the American Enterprise Institute. The real change could come through “100 different micro things that are enabled by the federal government backing up and just having this posture of saying, we want great things to happen, but this happens through the little platoons of society or through the laboratories of democracy—states and communities,” Smarick said.
In December 2015, Republican lawmakers adopted the Every Student Succeeds Act, anticipating the possibility a Democrat would be in the White House. The education reform package, which replaced No Child Left Behind, emphasizes state control and limits what the federal government can require of local school districts. But working around the law, the Obama administration adopted regulations that expanded federal oversight on accountability systems, testing, and everything that affects local school policy, said Lindsey Burke, an education expert with the Heritage Foundation.
“The regulations that the Obama administration has been promulgating run counter to the spirit of the law,” she said. Burke and other analysts expect those regulations will be among the first to go under a Trump administration.
One thing is not likely to disappear: Common Core. In part because of the federal restrictions enshrined in the Every Student Succeeds Act, Trump won’t be able to scrap the controversial standards without a vast expansion of federal influence on education, something experts think unlikely.
Much of what gets done during the next four years will depend on whom Trump appoints as his education secretary, Smarick said.
“There are two conservative postures. One says, I know what’s best, and I’m going to force that down on the states,” he said. “The other is one of humility that says, let’s let the states and local jurisdictions try to figure this out. The Trump administration could go either way. I’m not sure which model Trump will take.”
Gerard Robinson, one of Smarick’s colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, is advising Trump’s transition team on education. Despite the president-elect’s calls to do away with the Education Department, Robinson said he expects Trump to streamline, not abolish, it. He also acknowledged Trump’s $20 billion school-choice initiative is more of a starting place for policy discussions rather than a specific goal.
Burke said one way to advance a federal focus on school choice would be to breathe new life into Title I portability, the effort to put $15 billion in federal funding for disadvantaged students into education savings accounts families could use as they see fit. Conservative lawmakers failed to get Title I portability included in the Every Student Succeeds Act, but with a choice champion in the White House, the proposal has a chance of getting approved, Burke said.
“If we moved toward portability, the amount per child would be modest, maybe $1,000 or so,” she said. “Could a family really leverage that for a private school education? Probably not. But they could maybe leverage that for a private tutor or textbooks and curricula.”
Although the new administration has good opportunities to push through education reform, it also has a lot of other pressing priorities, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He cautioned against expecting too much change too soon in Trump’s tenure.
“Remember how far back in the queue education will be,” he said.
Leigh is acting managing editor for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.