The Hands of Trump’s New Secretary of Education Might Already Be Tied
Now that Donald Trump is the next president and given his rhetoric against traditional public schools, the nation’s students, parents, and teachers want to know: Will the president-elect take a sledgehammer to public education? Considering the issue largely took a backseat to immigration and the economy during the election, analysts have a better question: Does Trump have a plan for public education—and who will he appoint to oversee it?
“What [education] will look like under Trump, I really don’t know,” Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, told TakePart.
Trump—who has never held office but has run a for-profit college that’s being sued for fraud—could delegate decision making instead to Congress, the corporate reform community, or high-profile experts like former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is considered a strong candidate for education secretary.
While Brown said Trump’s opaque agenda for public schools is cause for concern, it’s possible that the new president’s seemingly hands-off approach—coupled with the restrictions in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act—could constrain the actions of a new secretary and maintain current education policy.
When he talked about education on the campaign trail, Trump was for school choice and private school vouchers, said far too much money is spent “on failing government schools” with mediocre results, and was firmly against the Common Core state standards.
“We’re going to end Common Core,” Trump promised in a campaign video released in January. It was a popular rallying cry supported by conservative lawmakers who have come out against the standards and what they consider to be federal overreach, particularly by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Under Duncan’s leadership, the U.S. Department of Education dangled $4.35 billion in grant funding in front of cash-strapped states after the Great Recession. A state’s chance of getting much-needed grant money increased if it agreed to adopt the Common Core standards and other federal mandates.
A backlash ensued, and the new law, which replaced No Child Left Behind and goes into effect during the 2017–18 school year, contains prohibitions that curtail the role of the secretary of education and prevent future arm-twisting grants.
How explicit are the rules? One section of the law states, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government, including through a grant, contract, or cooperative agreement, to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction, or allocation of State or local resources, or mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.”
Although the Every Student Succeeds Act largely keeps the Education Department from meddling in state standards and testing—and it’s likely that neither Congress nor the new president can completely destroy the cabinet-level post—who Trump picks for the job will matter.
Besides Rhee, who started the controversial education reform group StudentsFirst, other names on Trump’s shortlist include Tony Bennett, Indiana’s former education chief, and Rep. Luke Messer, a pro-reform member of Congress representing suburban Indianapolis.
As for what mandate Trump will assign to his secretary of education, “I think you can assume that school choice is imperative,” Brown said.
“We spend more per student than almost any other major country in the world. Yet our students perform near the bottom of the pack for major large advanced countries,” Trump said in September in a speech in Cleveland. He rattled off per-dollar, per-pupil statistics: $20,226 in New York City, $15,287 in Baltimore, and $11,976 in Chicago.
Now, as president-elect, Trump will get his opportunity to expand charters and vouchers, as well as take control of the nation’s public education system. But experts say his declaration about wasteful school spending, made in a speech arguing for school choice, is about the only concrete education-policy program the next president has proposed.
Brown predicts Trump will attempt to dismantle many of President Obama’s initiatives, including restrictions designed to improve and racially balance public schools, as well as his crackdown on for-profit colleges and universities—an industry that rakes in billions of dollars per year, mostly in government student loans, despite paltry graduation and job-placement rates.
When it comes to higher education, “I don’t think [Trump] is going to have a strong agenda,” and college costs are likely to continue rising, at least in the short term, Brown said.
“I think it will be banks, not students” that get their needs met, she said.