The Future of Education Under Trump

A four-person panel of education experts debate the future of education under Trump: What will happen to the Common Core, the DOE, and school choice. Reported by School Leaders Now senior editor, Wayne D’Orio.

“The way that this town works after a big election, everybody goes ‘Oh my God’ and starts flipping out over the worst possible outcomes. I don’t see the worst possible outcomes here. Yes, I see some changes. I don’t see tons of money but also don’t see huge cuts.”

That, in less than 50 words, was the reaction of Vic Klatt, a principal of the Penn Hill Group, to the election of Donald Trump. Klatt was part of a recent panel at the New President, New Education Agenda seminar. The Education Writers Association and the National Press Club sponsored the mid-November session in D.C.

The four-person panel debated what to expect from Trump and Mike Pence as they transition to power. A lack of specifics during the campaign led the members to guess at what the new president’s priorities might be. Topics included the fate of the Common Core, possible picks for the next DOE secretary, and where the promised $20 billion for school choice may come from. Besides Klatt, panelists included David Cleary, the majority staff director of the Senate and chief of staff to Senator Lamar Alexander, Education Week reporter Alyson Klein, and Bethany Little, a principal at EducationCounsel.

What We (Think) We Know

Education was not much debated during the long presidential campaign. Much of what Trump talked about could be summed in three points: He is against the Common Core, he is for school choice, and he’s promised to eliminate the Department of Education.

Vice president-elect Mike Pence has a much more substantial record during his time as both a U.S. representative and the governor of Indiana. Pence voted against No Child Left Behind when he was in the House. He strongly supports school choice and created a state-funded PreK program in Indiana. Pence also ousted the Common Core from Indiana; one critic said the state’s new standards were a “warmed-over version of the Common Core.”

“He’ll be an influential vice president and have a lot of say in policy,” said Cleary.

But Klatt continued to caution against expecting big, or fast, changes. “We still have the Senate. It’s still going to be very hard to do things. [Senator] Patty Murray will fight for stuff and she’s going to win some battles. That’s just how the Senate works.”

All members of the panel agreed that education doesn’t look to be an early focus of the new team. This is in part because the Every Student Succeeds Act just passed last year, with bipartisan support.

“They don’t need to do a whole lot other than implement the law as it was written,” Cleary said. One casualty could be the specific regulations that the Obama administration continued to craft since the law’s December 2015 passage. “The Obama administration is a happy hunting ground of regulations that deserve review by Congress,” Cleary added.

Little agreed the new regulations would likely be eliminated. Regulations are important, he pointed out, because they can guide states in how to follow the law.

Goodbye Common Core?

The education issue Trump mentioned most frequently was his opposition to the Common Core. But, in part because of recent legislation, he’s limited in what he can do to rollback adoption. Panelists agreed he could use the White House’s bully pulpit to discourage states from following the standards. But after many states retreated from the standards in 2015, it’s unclear if more states are looking to adopt alternate standards.

Late in the campaign, Trump pledged $20 billion to help promote school choice. The panelists agreed that this could be a tough sell, especially because choice, as an amendment to ESSA, didn’t pass the House last year.

Klatt said charters, which are supported by both Democrats and Republicans, had a good chance to expand, but “full-scale private school choice will be a battle.”

As for garnering funds for such a program, Klein said the new administration would likely try to allow Title 1 money to be used for this purpose.

Panelists were also skeptical about the promise to eliminate the Department of Education, with Klatt saying he had actually worked on bills to eliminate the department in the past. “It’s really hard,” he said, adding that the move was “mostly show business.”

Klatt made the point that the department is about organization charts, but even if the DOE were eliminated, the programs run by the department would likely continue. Adding a school choice program and a college loan repayment program would only add to what the department governs, he said.

Noting the outsider status of Trump’s campaign, Klatt added one bit of advice. “I hope they find someone who knows how to get things done and work with the bureaucracy. Without it, people spin their wheels for months on end.”

He mentioned Indiana Representative Luke Messer as a “sleeper” choice to lead the department, adding that Ben Carson and former Indiana and Florida schools chief Tony Bennett would also be considered. Klein said Wisconsin governor Scott Walker would top most Republican wish lists.

To read D’Orio’s previous column–on the resignation of Coachella (CA) Superintendent Darryl Adams–click here.

Wayne DOrio

Wayne D’Orio, a senior editor for School Leaders Now, is an award-winning education reporter. His recent work has detailed how the play Hamilton is changing high school education and how the tiny, Silicon Valley-inspired AltSchool aims to change the entire educational system. D’Orio’s work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post and Scholastic Administrator.