Education Under President Trump Doesn’t Look As Scary As You Might Think


The federal role in education has been a growth industry since at least the Johnson administration, when the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA, now the Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA) was passed as a part of the War on Poverty, with a focus on closing the achievement gap and equalizing funding between the rich and the poor. Federal involvement in education has trended up consistently, aided and abetted by conservatives who might have been expected to prefer local or state or family control of education decisions but instead expanded federal influences that favored their policy preferences, e.g., No Child Left Behind. Also important are the divisions in political control of the Senate, House, and Executive Branch that made a dramatic change of course unobtainable even if it had been desired.

Two aspects of a Trump administration create the prospect of significant disruption in the way things have been.

First is unified control of the Senate, House, and the presidency by the Republican Party. If, for example, Republicans in Congress want to restore and expand the voucher program that provides publicly funded scholarships for students to attend private schools in Washington, D.C., which was killed by President Obama in 2012, they can have it. Or, at the very least, if they want it but don’t get it, they will have nobody to blame but themselves.

Second is that while Trump the candidate didn’t have a lot to say about education, his few statements and the campaign’s positions have a strong populist tone. Included are his early and emphatic opposition to the Common Core State Standards (thought of by many as an elitist takeover of the nation’s school curriculum); commitment to making school choice available for all students from disadvantaged backgrounds; concern with high levels of college debt; comments, no matter how unartful, on the plight of urban public schools; and attention to child care support, which leaves decisions on providers to parents and stands as a clear alternative to the top-down universal pre-K programs favored by his opponent.

What this portends for actual federal law, approach, and regulation is guesswork, made chancier than might otherwise be the case by the lack of what in previous new administrations has been a predictable cast of characters with known positions from previous administrations likely to fill domestic policy and U.S. Department of Education leadership positions. A Trump administration will surely have some such players, but is likely as well to bring in people who are newcomers to federal government with backgrounds that are not traditional to education management and policy. Their positions on education, abilities to manage and lead within the federal bureaucracy, and impact on policies and practice are wild cards.

With that caution, the following are policies that are likely to be pursued by President Trump, with parenthetical comments on research on their effectiveness:

• Common Core – getting rid of it is largely taken care of by provisions of the new ESSA, but there will be a search-and-destroy mission for any remaining sources of federal support for common state standards and assessments.

(State standards have little impact on student achievement so nothing lost here[i], particularly since states can and will still adopt on their own);

• School choice – a strong effort to provide additional federal funds to states that allow funding to follow students to their public or private school of choice. It would be likely be funded by redirecting of a portion of current Title I dollars (federal dollars targeted to poor students) from states that don’t allow choice.

(Parents prefer schools of choice and competition among schools for students can increase productivity and promote innovation so a good thing if done right[ii]);

• Charter schools – an effort to reduce or eliminate current state caps on charter schools, and to increase their federal support – something the teachers’ unions have been fighting for years.

(Urban charter schools as a class are much more effective in raising student achievement than the traditional public schools with which they compete whereas suburban charter schools are not, so the impact depends on which charter schools are favored[iii]);

• D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program – this pilot program would be reauthorized, funded, and expanded.

(The program substantially enhances high school graduation rates and increases parental satisfaction at lower cost per student than education in the regular public schools of the District of Columbia[iv]);

• Higher education – fiddle with loan interest rates and repayment periods, seek ways to reintroduce a private market for student loans; use the tax code to incentivize institutions with large endowments to lower tuition costs; and create a friendlier environment for for-profit providers.

(Not much new here, problems with previous similar efforts, and doesn’t address core of the problem[v]);

• Early childhood – get the federal government out of the universal pre-K business; shift existing early childhood expenditures, including those for Head Start, to tax credits and cash transfers that flow directly to the family; use the tax code to incentivize employer-supported family leave.

(Providing cash transfers to families may be more beneficial for children than providing government preschool programs so this may be a win[vi]);

• K-12 – see school choice and relevant research above;

• U.S. Department of Education’s leadership and structure – trim programs and staffing; eliminate the Office of Civil Rights and transfer its functions to the Justice Department; restore the bully pulpit and reduce the use of regulation as the Secretary’s principal lever for affecting state and local policy; and create collaborative relationship with relevant House and Senate leadership.

(No direct research evidence);

• Funding – shifts in priorities but no increases (see priorities above for relevant research),

None of the education priorities and programs signaled by Trump and his campaign is unreasonable, many have a history and good research backing them. Higher education is the murkiest area. Details and implementation will matter a lot but on the surface there is nothing that hasn’t previously been part of the public discussion of education policy or that is scarily radical.

– Grover “Russ” Whitehurst

Grover J. Whitehurst is Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Center on Children and Families at Brookings. This first appeared on the Brookings blog.



Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College