Uncle Sam and America’s Schools in the Trump Administration

When it comes to K-12 education, possibly the most important question for any incoming Republican president is, “Are you hoping to advance particular programs or a steady, coherent conservative philosophy?” In other words, are there simply a couple initiatives you really want to push, or do you intend to prioritize overarching governing principles like subsidiarity, enhanced civil society activity, and incremental change and opposition to federal mandates, technocratic thinking, and sweeping reform?

REUTERS/Mike Segar
REUTERS/Mike Segar

Given that the Trump campaign, strikingly, never defined or really even outlined its ideological approach to domestic policy, this is an especially important question and should be front-of-mind for the right.

It’s quite easy and, honestly, it can be politically advantageous, for a president to forswear a consistent point of view and instead push specific school-related initiatives. A smartly executed announcement can capture the news cycle, fulfill a campaign promise, or excite an important constituency. Done repeatedly, this can later enable the administration to assemble for the State of the Union or the re-election campaign a compelling list of accomplishments demonstrating how much the president cares about kids.

But there are two serious problems for GOP administrations with this ideology-free, “agenda-by-items” approach to education. The first is that K-12 policy is, unfortunately, especially susceptible to faddish and facile ideas. Hot trends (like expanding the use of high-tech gadgets) and simplistic notions (like across-the-board pay hikes) can produce initiatives that are expensive and ineffective. They can also be narrow, discrete efforts that aren’t mutually reinforcing and fail to outline for the public a vision for school improvement. And they can exacerbate the longstanding problem of the federal government’s ever-meandering but always-expanding role in education.

The second concern is even bigger. An explicit, comprehensive philosophy of governing is extraordinarily important any time we invite Uncle Sam into our schools. That is, absent a clearly articulated view about the federal government’s strengths and weakness, what it should and shouldn’t do, and how it ought to interact with families, schools, districts, and states, an administration is asking for trouble.

If the administration’s proposals are taken up by Congress, during the negotiation process, there will be countless questions about the size of the program at issue, if it’s meant to be a temporary demonstration project or exist in perpetuity in the budget, if funds will be awarded through a competition or based on a federal formula, and if its contours will be prescribed by Washington or if states will have latitude. Needless to say, a federal program that’s small, short-term, competitive, and flexible is very different from one that’s large, permanent, formula-based, and DC-dictated.

Moreover, once the administration’s initial list of education priorities is exhausted, there will be years left in the term and a void to fill. If the administration isn’t clear about what it stands for, it could fall for anything. That is, without clearly articulated principles, the Department of Education and White House staff won’t know what to propose. Worse, they won’t know how to respond when Capitol Hill and advocacy organizations propose new, popular initiatives or when a crisis occurs (e.g. a wave of school violence, plummeting math scores, unhealthy water in schools).

An administration might be tempted to brush aside this pro-philosophy argument and instead reason, “We’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.” But a “response-by-instinct” strategy not only has the same dangers as the agenda-by-items approach; it also generally gravitates to decidedly progressive solutions.  When people are given authority, if they lack a conservative disposition or ideology and aren’t given conservative direction from above, they have a tendency to want to bend the world to their will. This is their big chance to direct others’ behavior, and so they can easily succumb to the temptation to use their fleeting power to its fullest.

Unmoored from conservative principles, they can decide to use the federal government’s substantial power — its bully pulpit, budget, regulatory power, guidance documents — to force policies they like. They can end up as bossy about their preferences as progressives would be about their own. It is instructive that while the Obama administration sought to nationalize its policies on teacher evaluation, standards, and assessments, the Bush administration attempted to do the same on accountability. When an ascendant team doesn’t govern deductively from conservative principles the upshot is predictable: local-led gives way to federal; organic gives way to centrally planned; small gives way to large; longstanding practice and incremental improvements give way to novel ideas and grand schemes.

It is not clear yet which path the Trump administration will take. In fact, the incoming administration’s marquee proposal — a $20 billion school-choice initiative — could, depending on how it’s executed, be an indicator of either an items- or principles-based approach.

A massive federal choice program could actually end up as the cornerstone of an activist Washington agenda of lots of initiatives. The new administration might reason that what America’s education system needs are big, swift, game-changing projects. So a federal voucher program could be coupled with a huge federal pre-school program, a free-college-for-all program, a massive increase in Title I funding, a new federal teacher-pay-raise program, and a federal school-construction program. In fact, the President-elect’s transition website announces that the administration hopes to accomplish its education goals through, in part, a “high-quality early childhood” program. And he’s expressed interest in a big infrastructure initiative that could include schools. So perhaps the administration is willing to be aggressive on federal education power and pursue a bold agenda-by-items strategy. In this scenario, lots of progressives might end up pleasantly surprised by a Trump K-12 education agenda.

Or maybe the school-choice proposal is an indicator of a conservative worldview. Perhaps leading with a parental-empowerment initiative is the way the administration signals its commitment to decentralization and its opposition to technocracy. In this case, follow-up proposals might include a state-friendly interpretation of the new federal K-12 law (the Every Student Succeeds Act) and scaled-back activity by the US Department of Education.

By choosing the talented Betsy DeVos as his nominee to be Secretary of Education, President-elect Trump might have intimated a policy-by-conservative-principles approach. In addition to being a smart, able, vocal, active school-choice supporter, DeVos is also a Republican and a recognized conservative (that was not the case with all of the reported finalists for the job). But the next round of education-related appointments will be extraordinarily important as well.

Those who staff education for the White House Domestic Policy Council and OMB and those selected for top positions at the US Department of Education will be charged with negotiating legislation, proposing new concepts, molding ideas into proposals, and much more. The philosophical priors and professional education-policy experiences they bring to their posts will tell us—and forecast the future—a great deal.

Over the next four years, key education decision-makers in the administration will be continuously peppered with advice. At various moments, it will come from West-Wing advisers, key congressional allies, important party figures, and others. They will have bold ideas about expanding Head Start, creating a national science curriculum, mandating federal rules on teacher certification, ballooning Washington’s role in online learning, and so much more. The key bulwarks against this kind of mission creep are, first, a definitive, public statement from the President-elect on the administration’s position on Uncle Sam’s role in schools; and, second, absent that, education officials’ deep familiarity with today’s policy issues and ability to apply conservative principles to them.

Given what we know about Washington’s centralizing, officious tendencies, conservatives should hope that during this administration their philosophy wags the tail of K-12 policy, not the other way around.

– Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI),  president of the Maryland State Board of Education, and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

This first appeared on AEIdeas as part of AEI’s What to Do: Policy Recommendations for 2017  project.

Disclosure: Ms. DeVos is a member of the AEI board.


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