What Would Another Trump Term Mean for Education?

So far, the GOP frontrunner’s education agenda lacks the 40-year tradition of Republican commitment to reform

Nothing about Donald Trump is predictable except unpredictability, so it may be folly to speculate on what his return to the Oval Office would mean for American education. It also needs to be said up front that, faced with all the challenges and risks of another Trump term, K–12 education policy will not likely be the top concern on many minds. But that’s the domain where I belong, so let’s parse the clues that have already been supplied as to what Trump II will likely undertake in this realm. Some come in the form of broad hints that his team will forcefully employ every means possible to reshape the government and its policies and practices to their liking. Some are more specific statements of what their education agenda will emphasize.

The clearest expression of the latter comes on a campaign website that purports to state Trump’s positions and plans on fifteen major issues. Education appears under the heading “Protect Parents’ Rights.” Here’s the entirety of it:

President Donald J. Trump fought tirelessly to expand charter schools and school choice for America’s children. He secured permanent funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and protected free speech on college campuses. Now, Joe Biden and the radical left are using the public school system to push their perverse sexual, racial, and political material on our youth. President Trump will cut federal funding for any school or program pushing Critical Race Theory or gender ideology on our children. His administration will open Civil Rights investigations into any school district that has engaged in race-based discrimination. President Trump will veto the sinister effort to weaponize civics education, keep men out of women’s sports, and create a credentialing body to certify teachers who embrace patriotic values. President Trump will reward states and school districts that abolish teacher tenure for grades K–12 and adopt Merit Pay, cut the number of school administrators, adopt a Parental Bill of Rights, and implement the direct election of school principals by the parents.

In the forward-facing portion of that paragraph (starting with “President Trump will…”), I detect five themes or emphases.

  • Engage in vigorous culture-war combat using two weapons: the power of the purse (by withholding federal funds from schools and “programs” that “push CRT or gender ideology on children”) and the threat of OCR investigations into districts that “engaged in race-based discrimination.” Though one should never underestimate what an administration (of either party) may try to accomplish via executive order, adding conditions to federal education spending normally requires Congressional action. It’s certainly possible that a Trump-aligned GOP majority on both sides of Capitol Hill would work with the White House on this, though it also seems likely that the courts would eventually take issue with restrictions that appear to limit what schools can teach. The threat of civil rights investigations, however, is entirely plausible and has been made by several recent administrations, including Trump I—and now Biden. Considering that the foremost purpose of OCR is to investigate “race-based discrimination” by educational institutions, the Trump team would simply assert that that’s what they’re doing. And they’ll run into all the usual complexities when dealing both with complaints that come through the transom and pro-active efforts to quash practices they abhor. How, for example, to cope with the upscale Evanston school system’s recent creation of single-race “affinity classes” intended to shrink racial “learning gaps”?
  • “Vetoing” efforts to “weaponize civics education.” It’s really hard to picture how this might be done. Presidents can only veto acts of Congress, although they can also halt agency actions that they don’t like. Today, however, despite efforts by devotees of civics-education reform to get Congress to authorize sizable sums for this, there’s minimal involvement by federal agencies in any form of social studies education—just a couple of tiny programs and projects here and there at ED and NEH.
  • “Keep men out of women’s sports.” Title IX is complicated and its enforcement—OCR again—multifaceted and, to a considerable extent, discretionary on the part of the enforcers. And a Republican Congress might also amend it to push enforcement farther into the myriad complexities of transgender issues. One way or another, those issues are bound to be front and center.
  • “Create a credentialing body to certify teachers who embrace patriotic values.” To my knowledge, Uncle Sam today has essentially nothing to do with teacher credentialing save for Defense Department schools—and approving the accreditation groups in higher education that include university-based teacher education. I can’t picture how a federal teacher-certification “body” would work, though I could imagine some sort of federal award or badge for teachers who—let’s say—pass the national citizenship exam. Getting into the realm of the “values” that a teacher “embraces,” however, recalls McCarthyism and feels scary—which doesn’t mean that would deter Trump.
  • “Rewarding” states and districts that “abolish teacher tenure for grades K–12 and adopt Merit Pay, cut the number of school administrators, adopt a Parental Bill of Rights, and implement the direct election of school principals by the parents.” This is a mish-mash of five different activities that would, says the Trump campaign, lead to “rewards,” which can mean anything from a handshake or fancy medal at the White House to a flag over school-system headquarters to some sort of cash bonus or freedom from one or another burdensome regulation. The ubiquitous practice of public-school teacher tenure is typically enshrined in state law, though its administration may be locally determined (often via union contracts). Merit pay, which can take a hundred forms, might be statewide, might be local. Cutting administrators—how defined, how measured, what base year?—would be a local move. A parents’ bill of rights can also mean a thousand different things, most likely a state law of some kind, though the House of Representatives has passed its own federal version. As for school principals elected by parents, that one at least has the virtue of resembling a new idea, though facsimiles of it can be found in some private and charter schools—and Chicago tried a version in its public schools in the late 1980’s.

Take note, too, of what’s missing from the Trump list, the dogs that aren’t barking—not just school safety and discipline, but also the core school-reform agenda of the past forty years. There’s nothing new here on charter schools or school choice, despite the heavy emphasis that he and Secretary DeVos gave it during their previous reign (and for which his campaign takes credit in the first part of his statement). Even more conspicuous by its absence is any mention of learning loss or dismal NAEP and PISA scores, much less the need for children to learn more so as to advance the nation’s prosperity, security, and equity via stronger achievement, higher standards, diminished gaps, accountability for results—or indeed anything at all in that vein. If the nation is still at risk due to the slipshod, gap-filled learning of its young people or the weak performance of its schools, you wouldn’t know it from this version of the Trump education platform.

By omitting the longstanding “ed-reform agenda,” the Trump team is not only departing from forty years of GOP education priorities, but also seems to not be making a play for suburban moms, independents, or Democrats, maybe not even for Republicans beyond his “base.”

To be fair, however, I must note that the Biden crew, along with its hostility to school choice, also seems oblivious to student achievement, and nothing they’ve said so far about second-term plans and priorities signals otherwise.

It all makes me very sad.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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