Republican President-elect Donald Trump spoke about education only in broad terms on the campaign trail, leaving plenty of uncertainty about how his administration now intends to handle policy questions ranging from standardized testing and school accountability to the treatment of transgender students.
But Trump’s stunning election is likely to mean a clear contrast with some key Obama administration policies, including a vigorous push for federally funded private school vouchers and a downsizing of the Education Department, which has arguably exercised more influence under Obama than at any other point.
Trump’s most substantial campaign proposal on education was a $20 billion grant program that he’d use to encourage states to expand school choice — giving parents more control over the kind of education their children receive — including through vouchers, charter schools and magnet schools. The money would come from somewhere else in the federal budget, but it’s not clear where; Trump has not said.
In the run-up to the election, Randi Weingarten — president of the American Federation of Teachers and adviser to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — said that Trump’s proposal, if enacted, would mean the “decimation of public education.” On Wednesday, she said she is holding out hope that Trump will not follow through.
“He really never ran on that proposal. He mentioned it a few times and that was it,” she said. “Unlike his economic proposals, which were very populist in nature, his education proposal was very ideological in nature, and if one looks at the other results from yesterday, it is in defiance of where the will of the people are.”
Weingarten was referring to the resounding defeat of two ballot initiatives: One in Massachusetts that would have allowed for the expansion of charter schools, and another in Georgia that would have allowed for state takeovers of struggling schools, presumably easing their conversion to charter schools. “By pretty much equal amounts, by a two-to-one margin, they said ‘no, don’t touch our public schools,'” Weingarten said.
Gerard Robinson, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former state education chief in Florida and Virginia, said he believes Trump will make a priority of expanding choice programs — even if the $20 billion proposal doesn’t get traction — because the president-elect fundamentally believes that families should have more control. “He’s going to make a push for parental choice,” Robinson said.
The nation currently spends about $15 billion on Title I, the federal program meant for the education of poor children, and analysts attempting to understand the impact of Trump’s proposal have assumed that these are the dollars that would be redirected to vouchers. Robinson underscored that Trump has never specified that the money would be related to Title I, and that there are plenty of children who are not poor who could benefit from more choice.
Robinson, who Education Week reported is an education adviser to Trump, declined to confirm or comment on his role with the campaign and now the transition team.
Trump’s election could also affect how the federal government interprets the new Every Student Succeeds Act. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. is in the middle of finalizing regulations to implement the law, including a hotly contested rule that would govern how districts allocate billions of federal dollars meant to educate poor children.
The Obama administration argues that the regulation would protect the civil rights intent of the law and give disadvantaged children access to better education, while GOP leaders and state education chiefs have argued that the rule defies the spirit of a law meant to hand authority over schools back to the states.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the senate education committee and a chief critic of the Obama administration’s approach, said he is hopeful that the Trump administration will take a different tack.
“The Trump Administration has a prime opportunity to significantly reduce the intrusion of the Education Department into our local schools and classrooms,” the spokeswoman said. “When the Trump Administration enforces the Every Student Succeeds Act as written, the size of the Education Department will be necessarily and appropriately diminished.”
Trump has said alternately that he would scale back or eliminate the department altogether. Robinson said he expects Trump to “at minimum, streamline” the agency. “Will he decide to abolish it as we know it? That remains to be seen,” Robinson said.
The Trump administration could also scale back the work of the department’s Office of Civil Rights, which under Obama has stepped up investigations of college sexual assault and of schools that disproportionately suspend and expel students of color. OCR also has enforced the Obama administration’s stance that Title IX protects transgender students from discrimination, and has handled a fast-growing number of complaints about discrimination based on race, sex and disability.
Trump is likely to follow Republican precedent and use the Department’s Office of Civil Rights in a “less expansive way,” Robinson said, but he said he did not know whether the new president would change course on any specific policy areas.
He also said he anticipates a Trump administration would seek to promote entrepreneurship and create problem-solving in education, and would do so in part by serving as a “partner, not so much as a dictator” with school districts and states.
As president, Trump will not have the legal authority to make good on one of his campaign promises: Getting rid of the Common Core State Standards, the academic standards that are deeply unpopular with Trump’s political base. Federal law expressly forbids the federal government from interfering with states’ decisions about academic standards.
Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a Common Core supporter, said he anticipates another wave of backlash against the standards in the states — so it won’t be helpful to have a president using his bully pulpit to rail against them.
Petrilli said he anticipates that questions about how Trump will proceed on early childhood and K-12 education won’t be settled anytime soon, in part because of the amount of time it takes an incoming administration to staff up. “I would not be surprised if on many of these issues there’s just uncertainty for a long, long time,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) instead of his spokeswoman.