Look to Congress, not Trump, for Leadership on Education Policy

Policy is not Donald Trump’s strong suit, and education is no exception. Trump’s statements on education are often incoherent, including his incorrect assertion that the federal government can abolish Common Core standards and a poorly constructed proposal on student loans. And his positions are ever changing, so Rick Hess is surely right that trying to predict future policy from a thin and shifting record is a waste of time.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

What seems more likely is that a Trump administration will be weak on many policy issues, especially those such as education that it paid little attention to during the campaign. This will be compounded if the new administration struggles to attract talented staff, an area where the campaign performed worse than any other in modern history. Perhaps most famously, the Trump campaign shut down its DC policy shop and stiffed its employees.

Congress, not the White House, will be the place to look for leadership on major federal education policies in 2017. Republicans control both the House and Senate, as they have since 2015, but this time with a president who is nominally of the same party. That means that legislative action will require less bipartisan support, although of course Trump himself will remain a wildcard.

Higher education will be front and center in 2017, as Congress turns to the overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act amid elevated public concern about rising college prices and student debt. Senator Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the committee responsible for education, will almost certainly play a leading role, as he did in the successful bipartisan effort to reauthorize the major K-12 education law in 2015.

Senator Alexander and his team have serious policy chops. Last year, they released a series of white papers on college accreditation, holding colleges accountable for student outcomes, and improving the provision of consumer information in higher education. And it would not be surprising to see Alexander capitalize on bipartisan interest in these ideas, which would be needed to reach the 60-vote filibuster threshold (unless the Republican leadership end the filibuster or use the budget reconciliation process to avoid it).

Student loans are another component of higher education policy that will continue to receive significant attention from policymakers and the public. Trump has said little of substance on this subject, but various ideas have been percolating in Congress for years, including shifting to automatic income-based repayment and simplifying the application process for federal aid. Congress would do well to keep the Trump administration on the sidelines, at least publicly, to avoid polarizing what are currently bipartisan issues.

Can Trump be counted on as a rubber stamp for Congress on education policy? That’s anyone’s guess, but an assertive Congress ignoring or even steamrolling a weak, incompetent White House seems like a plausible outcome in 2017, especially if the 2016 campaign is any guide.

—Matthew M. Chingos

Matthew M. Chingos is a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute.

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