Before attention turns entirely to President Biden, it is worth pausing to take a quick look back to assess President Trump’s education reform efforts. Perhaps Biden—or any other politician trying to make progress on education-related issues—can learn something from Trump’s missteps.
Trump’s re-election campaign emphasized two education-related themes—school choice and patriotic history.
On the choice front, Trump devoted a substantial portion of his February 2020 State of the Union address to an “opportunity scholarship” for a Pennsylvania 4th grader named Janiyah Davis. “Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school,” Trump said. In an August 12 news conference, Trump said, “we talk about school choice, which we’d like to see so that parents can take their children to the school of their choice. That’s something we want. We think it’s very important, especially in the minority communities. They want it so badly. African American, Hispanic American, Asian American—they want it so badly.” On September 23, 2020, meeting with Cuban American veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Trump claimed, “We are protecting school choice for over 1 million Hispanic American students—such a big deal. In a second term, I will provide school choice to every family in America.” In videotaped remarks to a Catholic event on October 1, Trump said, “To support the noble mission of Catholic schools, my administration is working to advance school choice. It was my great honor to help the Catholic Church with its schools. They needed hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide, and I got it for them. Nobody else. I got it for them.” On October 10, at the White House: “school choice. You have to have school choice. Charter schools, school choice.”
On the patriotic history front, on September 17, 2020, Trump spoke at a White House Conference on American History. Said Trump, “The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth.” The president added, “The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.” On November 2, 2020, Trump issued an executive order establishing, with the Department of Education, a 1776 Commission to “advise executive departments and agencies with regard to their efforts to ensure patriotic education.” A White House “fact sheet” about the order was headlined, “President Donald J. Trump Is Protecting America’s Founding Ideals by Promoting Patriotic Education.”
After campaigning hard on these twin themes of school choice and patriotic education, President Trump not only lost his re-election bid, but his Republican Party lost control of the Senate. Have the policy ideas been discredited and defeated, definitively rejected, along with Trump?
Though Trump did spend time on the education issue during the election year, polling and reporting indicate most voters made decisions driven by issues such as Trump’s character and his handling of the pandemic, the economy, and race relations, not education policy questions. Education, unlike, say, the southern border wall or China tariffs, was not really a signature issue for Trump. It was more of an afterthought.
Perhaps relatedly, Trump botched the execution of both the choice and the history issues. On the choice issue, promising it as a second-term priority—”In a second term, I will provide school choice to every family in America”—was a not-so-subtle reminder that Trump had failed to deliver it in his first term. Trump’s 2017 tax law did permit families to use up to $10,000 a year from a 529 college savings account for K-12 education, but, because many 529 plans are state-run, some Democratic governors managed to obstruct even that. Anyway, 529 plans offer only tax-exempt growth, not a federal tax deduction or credit for contributions. The moment, if there was one, to achieve some sort of federal school choice program such as the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act was in that 2017 tax legislation. Trump missed the chance. As a consequence, instead of running for re-election on an accomplishment, he was running on a promise. Voters had reason to doubt he would be able to keep it.
On the history issue, the timing tells the story: Trump created the 1776 Commission in November 2020. The commission released its report on January 18, 2021. Whatever anyone might think of the report, it was far too late to influence the election outcome, and also too late to translate into any appreciable changes in schools or classrooms. Maybe even without the rush, the commission, and the brief report it produced, would have emphasized patriotism over accuracy and failed to change anyone’s mind. But because of the late start that is a counterfactual. We won’t know, though perhaps there will be a do-over opportunity if Biden accepts Craig Bruce Smith’s suggestion, in Politico, to create a thorough, nonpartisan 1776 Commission of his own.
Trump’s most consequential education reform move was probably nominating to the Supreme Court justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, who joined in the 2020 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. As Joshua Dunn wrote for Education Next, that opinion, issued June 30, 2020, has the potential to reshape the school choice landscape, but in ways that are yet to be fully appreciated or litigated. What an irony if after years of criticizing Democrats for pursuing policy objectives through the courts rather than through legislation, a Republican administration’s big school choice victory came in court rather than in Congress.
Biden has reportedly already started staffing a commission to consider structural reforms to the Supreme Court, so it’s possible that any Trump-era gains there will be as evanescent as Trump’s 1776 Commission report, which was shunted to a White House archive website just days after its release. That Biden’s Supreme Court review effort is starting immediately rather than waiting until 2024 suggests the newly inaugurated Democrat from Delaware already understands a key political maxim that Trump failed to heed, at least on education policy: don’t wait.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.