Donald Trump and the Future of Education

The president-elect supports school vouchers and scaling back the government’s role in student lending.

Donald Trump visited a school in Las Vegas during a campaign stop in October. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

I’ll be honest; I’d pre-written a piece on what a Clinton presidency might mean for education. The polls pointed in her direction and she’s been talking about children and schools for years, meaning there was plenty to mull. I’d interviewed a number of both conservative and liberal education wonks who had a general idea of what to expect and a relatively uniform belief that she would work across the aisle.

Now, what happens education-wise under Donald Trump’s administration is unclear.

What he’s said on the campaign trail about schools and students obviously won’t transfer directly into policy, but his words offer clues. Will Trump shutter the U.S. Education Department entirely, as he’s suggested? That seems highly unlikely, but there’s a very real chance he’ll scale back its scope drastically. Looking at the big picture, with Republicans controlling the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, more decision-making power is likely to be transferred back to states and local governments. And Trump is likely to push what he’s called a “market-driven” approach to education. That makes civil-rights groups and many Democrats who see the federal government as something of a safety net for vulnerable low-income students and children of color nervous.

Last year, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new version of the nation’s federal K-12 education law, it returned a significant amount of authority to the states. The Obama administration had sought to retain some control as it hammered out how the law would be implemented by issuing regulations telling states, for instance, that federal money allocated to the education of poor students had to supplement and not replace local dollars. The regulations angered both Republicans and teachers’ unions on the left. The Obama administration has seen the Education Department as a critical watchdog when it comes to making sure students’ civil rights are protected. But Republicans and unions have balked at what they see as a department that has far overstepped its authority. The chance that a Trump administration backs the regulations the current Education Secretary John King and his team are developing now seems shaky.

But there are other elements of U.S. education policy that are likely to remain relatively entrenched. Perhaps Trump’s most oft-quoted education promise on the campaign trail was a pledge to “repeal” Common Core. That’s not actually possible, though, because Common Core is not a federal policy but a set of standards states have adopted for what students at each grade level should be able to do, and the federal government doesn’t dictate those. More than 40 states have adopted the standards, and the idea that they will suddenly abandon them is not realistic.

One area where the Trump administration could make changes, and where officials might use the muscle of the Education Department, is in expanding the use of vouchers that would let students use federal money to attend the schools of their choice, be they charters, private or parochial schools, magnet programs, or traditional public schools. Trump has proposed $20 billion to move that idea forward. Whether it becomes a reality is obviously unclear, but with Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate, there’s a good chance some sort of federally backed voucher program could move forward. (More than a dozen states have some sort of voucher program currently, but many of the programs are targeted specifically at certain students, such as those from low-income families or those with special needs.)

“You’re going to see Trump making a push for parental choice,” Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who served as Florida education commissioner, said during a phone interview. (Robinson made clear that he was speaking solely as a fellow at AEI, but numerous reports have suggested that he is one of the people Trump has tapped to head up his education transition team.)

Trump’s choice of education secretary (a position that Robinson is rumored to be in the running for) will offer more clues as to what his administration plans to prioritize. It may be someone from outside the education-policy world entirely, perhaps someone who sits on a university board but comes from the corporate world. Vice President-elect Mike Pence has more of a track record on education than Trump (who has none), and the president could also turn to him for guidance. Pence wants schools to be locally controlled with minimal federal involvement. He’s backed charter schools and vouchers, but also cracked down on low-performing charters during his tenure as governor of Indiana. Pence also successfully urged state Republicans to create a publicly funded preschool program aimed at low-income children, but he was reluctant to apply for a federal grant to fund the program, so it’s unclear that Pence would push for a preschool expansion at the federal level.

While we don’t know who will lead the department yet (if the entity continues to exist), Trump has reportedly tapped Williamson Evers at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who worked in the George W. Bush administration, in addition to Robinson, to head up his education transition team. He’s also said former Republican presidential challenger Ben Carson would be “involved” in education. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has repeatedly criticized teachers’ unions, could also have some influence. This all suggests that, broadly, a Trump administration would be pro-charter and pro-voucher while also looking to generally scale back the federal government’s role in education. Robinson said he expects Trump to emphasize “entrepreneurship” over “bureaucracy,” and to demand “taxpayer accountability.”

A Trump presidency will also affect how education policy plays out on Capitol Hill. There are a number of education policies expected to come up for reauthorization in the coming years, including the Higher Education Act. On higher education, Trump has said he’d like to make college more affordable by capping student-loan repayments and, as he said on the trail repeatedly, getting the Education Department out of the student-loan business. He’s also backed income-based repayment plans, an idea that has garnered support from both major parties, and said university endowments should not be exempt from taxes.

He’s worried some students and college leaders by suggesting that universities are too concerned with being “politically correct,” and international students—Muslims in particular—have expressed concern about whether they would be permitted to study at U.S. universities given Trump’s pledge to ban or severely restrict the number of Muslims entering the country. His comments about holding colleges accountable and his suggestion that colleges should only accept students they think can be successful have also worried some advocates who are concerned that children who face significant adversity and may not have the best grades or best credentials (but for whom education might present a real path to success) will be pushed out of attending college. It’s too early to tell whether those fears will be realized, but Trump will also likely have the opportunity to nominate several conservative Supreme Court justices, who could strip affirmative-action policies.

While Trump has talked about streamlining the government, which could mean moving something like the Office of Civil Rights from the Education Department to the Justice Department, Robinson said that does not mean the administration will ignore violations. That “in no way means less interested in equality and addressing issues of discrimination,” he said. He added, too, that the campaign has met with higher-education leaders, including those who run historically black colleges and universities, about access. Ultimately, on higher education, Robinson, who is black, said, “I think we’ve got to find a unique way of informing the public … what are we getting for our investment?”

It’s worth noting here that Trump will soon have to appear in court for a trial related to Trump University, a for-profit school that has been accused of fraudulently marketing professors as hand-picked by Trump and failing to teach how he achieved success in real estate. While it’s unclear how that trial will go, it seems unlikely that Trump will continue the Obama administration’s crackdown on low-performing for-profit schools like Corinthian. (Stocks for some for-profits, like DeVry, jumped after Trump’s win became apparent.)

The short answer to the complicated question about what education looks like under Trump is: No one knows for sure. But Robinson pushed back at the idea that Trump hasn’t talked much about education. He might not have used the words “school” or “teacher” or “education,” but “he talked about the economy, he talked about the military, and he talked about safety,” Robinson said. All three tie back to education—bolstering the economy and maintaining an elite fighting force both require educated citizens, he pointed out. “Education has been part of the conversation,” he insisted, “just not school buildings.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I pointed out that there are students across the country from immigrant and Muslim families, for instance, who are scared of a Trump presidency. How can Trump convince them, along with the about half the voters who cast ballots for Clinton, that he is their president, too? Robinson said Trump had “started that conversation” with his acceptance speech, and said it’s one he expects to continue. That conversation is not an easy one or an isolated one, and it will take reflection from more than just Trump.

A couple of days ago, before the election results came in, I spoke with Michael Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-focused think tank. Petrilli has long been on the record as having reservations about Trump. We spoke mostly about the prospect of a Clinton presidency and where there might be room for compromise with Republicans. This morning, he published a blog post with these thoughts:

“It would be churlish, and incorrect, I think, to ascribe the vote to Trump’s race-mongering, or xenophobia. That is there at the fringes. But for most of these folks—our fellow Americans—they simply were tired of being ignored. Joe Scarborough said it well on his show this morning: Those of us in the “bubble” are living better and better lives, while those in the rural countryside quite clearly are not. Their jobs are gone. Their grown children are hooked on heroin and their grandkids have an uncertain future. Their neighbors are dying young, with broken lives and broken spirits. And yet, until Trump, almost nobody was speaking about their concerns, their hopes and dreams, the contributions they still have to make to our great country.

As my colleague Robert Pondiscio eloquently argued many months ago, we in education reform have been guilty of forgetting these Americans, too. It would not have taken much for us to be clear when calling on policymakers to close achievement gaps that we were talking about both class and race. We could have talked more about the J.D. Vance’s of the world—the far too rare children of the white working class who make it to and through college, and what might be done to dramatically boost their numbers. As the election recedes from view, let us not fall back into our bad habits, and forget the rural and small town kids who need our help, too.”

The conversation, about education and so many other issues, is only just beginning.