What the Trump presidency will mean for schools

9th November 2016 at 17:33
Donald Trump, president, education, teachers, schools
Donald Trump’s campaign promised much greater choice and competition in American schools - but pushing through change will be tough, says this Harvard professor

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Many education activists and practitioners across the US woke up today shell-shocked with mingled feelings of dismay, horror and confusion. Others apparently greeted President-elect Trump with high hopes that he’d lead a stunning overhaul of America which would feature some radical improvements in education. 

Like Hillary Clinton, Trump paid disappointingly scant attention to education issues on the campaign trail, perhaps fearing, as she did, the alienation of potential voters who were feverishly caught up in various “education wars” over hot button issues like charter schools, Common Core, teacher evaluation and testing.  

Nonetheless, Trump eventually overcame his reluctance and with characteristic bluster came to articulate his education agenda which is ultimately and mostly about school choice as the elixir required to make American public education “great again”. 

To be sure, Trump touched on other education issues, briefly and confusingly in some cases:  “Common Core is a disaster”; the curriculum is “dumbed down”; schools are “crime ridden”; “bring education local”; cut the US Department of Education “way, way, way back”; end “creative spelling”, “estimation” and “empowerment”; bring down “union walls” and so forth. 

But the jewel in the crown and the only detailed plan he presented focused on a $20 billion plan to introduce much greater choice and competition into US education via various incentives to the states. Notwithstanding the lack of evidence that major choice initiatives have led to improved education results in the variety of jurisdictions where it’s been tried, Trump proposes to re-purpose current federal education spending to make a massive investment in a host of choice programs, targeting poor children and including charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, and opportunity scholarships involving public and private and schools.

Trump, as the founder and sponsor of Trump University, also expressed views on higher education and the student debt crisis.  He cited inefficient spending at colleges and universities and the need to prevent the federal government from “profiting” on student loans. In early childhood, Trump did present plans to help families cope with day care expenses but did not focus on access or quality of early childhood education.

Donald Trump’s unexpected victory is anathema to America’s education establishment, especially to the teachers' unions who worked tirelessly to defeat him. For other, less partisan educators, the prospect of a Trump Administration is a slightly scary enigma. 

It’s unclear where he’ll take us on education, how much of a priority education is on his agenda and what kind of leaders he’ll appoint. After all, Trump has no track record on education and during the campaign evinced little interest in the subject of schooling. He sometimes even seemed confused about the federal role in education.

While he is clearly committed to leading with a powerful choice initiative coupled with heavy doses of policy and rhetoric about returning education to “local control”, he will find it more complicated than he might have anticipated to lead on education at the federal level. 

For example, President Trump will find he does not have the power to tell states to “get rid of the Common Core”  because the federal government is explicitly prohibited from telling states which standards they can or can’t adopt. 

While choice advocates are thrilled with his adoption of their “silver bullet,” the President will undoubtedly have problems maneuvering his agenda through a Congress which has recently adopted the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA was animated by a clear message to the Federal government that it should retreat from the activist role played by the Obama Administration in implementing an aggressive interpretation of the No Child Left Behind Act and assuming even more prerogatives with the Race to the Top initiative. Congress clearly prefers a less muscular federal role in state and local education decisions.

At the same time, Congress is deeply divided not only between the political parties but within each party over education matters. The ideological differences are huge and views are passionately held. For example, shifting Elementary and Secondary Education Act money from Title I to school choice will be a battle royale as would a policy shift to allow public monies to go to private schools. 

President Trump will have much work to do in unifying his own party around his education agenda to say nothing of attracting Democrats who, themselves, are deeply divided on many of these issues.  The President will not have a blank check.

Policy advocates and practitioners will likely be confused for some time as to the Trump Administrations intentions for K-12 schooling. Obviously, there are other topics on the domestic and international scenes which will consume his immediate attention. In education, his leadership choices will begin to tell the story.  Then, there’s a question of how much of his campaign rhetoric he really intends to pursue, especially as he is someone who has never governed and, at the same time, was a candidate who frequently seemed willing to say anything, whether he believed it or not, to get elected. 

His intentions are unknown.  Eventually, we hope to find out what he really believes.  But in the meantime, we can expect him to select unconventional leaders like Ben Carson, whose education views Trump has publicly lauded, and choice champions who see his presidency as their opportunity to break the education “monopoly” and  transform education in America.  

It’s a “new day” in America.  For some, the Trump presidency looks like the end of business as usual and a transition to a brave, new world whose features are unclear.  For others, this is a time of great promise.

President-elect Trump certainly has everyone’s attention, however it’s important to remember that change has always, throughout our history, come slowly in the field of education. This is why our 21st century schools and classrooms still look disturbingly similar to schools of 150 years ago. We need change and transformation in education but we have violent disagreements over the strategies we should employ to serve our children better, more equitably. 

The new president has some ideas and has earned the right to see where he can go with them, but I wouldn’t expect any miracles. The status quo is amazingly resilient and change comes hard, especially when children are involved and lots of adult interests are at stake. One day at a time. We shall see and hope for the best.

Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration and the Director of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education

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