What Does a President Trump Mean for Public Education?

Closing the U.S. Department of Education might be on the table.
(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)
Nov 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

From the repeal of a ban on bilingual education in California to a smackdown of charter school expansion in Massachusetts, a wide range of education issues were subject to voter scrutiny across the United States on Election Day. But the fate of the nation’s K–12 public schools and institutions of higher education never became a prominent issue in the presidential race, leaving some Americans to wonder what the education agenda of President Donald Trump will be.

During his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Trump vowed “to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” The specifics of how the nation’s public schools will be improved went unmentioned.

“It is a mixed picture,” prominent education historian, author, and New York University professor Diane Ravitch wrote in an email to TakePart. “Certainly Trump said nothing during the campaign that showed any interest in public schools.”

But if Trump follows through on what campaign rhetoric he did offer, one of the major changes he may attempt will be to shrink, gut, or completely eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.

“We want to bring education local, so we’re going to be cutting the Department of Education big league because we’re running our education from Washington, D.C., which is ridiculous, instead of running it out of Miami or running it out of the different place that we have so many people,” Trump said in a speech in Florida in August.

“His surrogate Carl Paladino (businessman who ran against Cuomo and has financial interests in charters in Buffalo) said Trump would not put an educator in charge of the Department of Ed.,” wrote Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under both President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

Trump is not the first politician to suggest that the nation ditch the Department of Education. In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on a platform that included abolishing the department, which his opponent, President Jimmy Carter, had founded. Even though Reagan won the election, he kept the department, thanks in part to opposition from a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Under Reagan’s tenure, in 1983 the Department of Education produced the landmark report A Nation at Risk, which framed the nation’s education problems in terms a Cold War audience could understand: “We have dismantled essential support systems which helped make...gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament,” the report’s authors wrote.

Despite his campaign rhetoric, Reagan found that slashing the Department of Education could produce disastrous results for students, teachers, and the economy. Similarly, an analysis this September from the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund found that if the Department of Education were dissolved, roughly 8 million low-income students would lose the Pell Grants they depend on to afford college, and “5 million children and students with disabilities would lose $12.7 billion used every year to ensure that they receive a quality education.”

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In addition, “over 490,000 teacher positions could be eliminated—14 percent of K–12 public school teachers nationwide,” the center wrote in its analysis. “This would have a terrible effect on the U.S. economy. The loss of that many jobs would be like UPS—one of the country’s largest employers, with over 350,000 American workers—going out of business.”

As for what else Trump might do, vouchers and charters seem to be among his priorities for education policy. At the same October event where he made his remarks about downsizing the Department of Education, Paladino, who served as Trump’s cochairman in New York state, said that Trump would seek to “encourage competition in the marketplace and eventually dismantle the corrupted, incompetent urban school districts that we have in America today,” reported The Washington Post.

The first bullet on the education section of Trump’s campaign website says that his administration will “immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice. This will be done by reprioritizing existing federal dollars.”

“I assume he wants to turn Title I into a block grant to the states for charters, vouchers, or even public schools. That’s the $20 billion he promised to redirect to choice,” Ravitch wrote to TakePart. Title I is the federal program that provides funding to local school districts to improve the achievement of students from low-income families. A report on the issue released in September from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the private school choice programs may indeed prevent equitable services from being provided to all students.

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“While public schools have the responsibility for educating all students, many voucher schools take public funding while picking and choosing students based on their academic and behavioral characteristics,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers labor union, said in a statement after the report’s release. “Voucher schools don’t abide by the same academic quality standards as public schools. They blur the lines separating church and state. Finally, vouchers exacerbate inequity by directly draining critical funding away from public schools—often the schools that need that funding most.”

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What may end up lessening the impact of whatever Trump’s plans end up being is that there’s no mention of education in the Constitution, so it’s left to states to decide.

“In a curious twist, the salvation of public education may be [the Every Student Succeeds Act], which devolved greater discretion to states,” wrote Ravitch.

The ESSA passed both chambers of Congress with strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Obama in December. The law, which goes into effect during the 2017–18 school year, replaced the federal, top-down, standardized test–heavy mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act and gives states more flexibility in choosing their student achievement accountability goals.

“Local and state governments are less likely to harm their public schools than DC pols, because they are closer to their communities,” Ravitch wrote.