How the GOP's Sweep in the States Will Shape America's Schools

Experts predict greater access to school vouchers, challenges to teacher-tenure laws, and continued fights over funding.

A woman votes in a voting booth at a school
Patrick Semansky / AP

Many eyes have been on Trump Tower as the president-elect and his transition team have started to select key cabinet positions. Effectively shutting down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan during these deliberations, the team is making decisions that will shape wide-ranging policies, on everything from immigration to trade, in the coming years.

For people like myself who are closely monitoring what the future will look like for schools, the locus of attention is not on Trump Tower, but on the state capitals, which have the greatest power over America’s classrooms. Like the upheaval that happened with the national election, the states had somewhat of their own shake up this November, with Republicans winning a record number of legislative spots—and a historic high for governorships—in what some have described as a “bloodbath.”

Beginning in January 2017, Republicans will control two-thirds of the state legislative chambers, an all-time high. The GOP will control both legislative chambers in 32 states, another all-time high; the same is true for Democrats in just 13 states. Republicans will hold 33 governorships for the first time in 94 years. And 25 states have a Republican trifecta with control of the executive branch and both legislative chambers.

These new state-level Republican leaders will certainly make major decisions about America’s schools in the next few years. Experts predict more school-choice legislation, greater conflict over education funding, and increased challenges to teacher-tenure laws. While Republicans are not a monolithic block—their priorities will vary from state to state—the country can expect to see certain trends unfold over the next few years.

The states have always controlled education policy in this country; the federal government accounts for only 8 percent or so of all education dollars. Last year’s revision to the law formerly known as No Child Left Behind, the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), consolidated state control even further. Given the Trump administration’s priorities, Kenneth Wong, a professor of education and politics at Brown University, predicted that the federal government would continue to take a backseat to the states.

Pat McGuinn, a professor of political science who specializes in education at Drew University in New Jersey, described the influx of these new state-level Republican leaders, aided by their new powers granted to them from last year’s ESSA legislation, as “a perfect storm.”

While the states will write and pass the laws that directly affect the funding and organization of America’s schools, Trump and his advisers will shape their agenda on the national stage to advocate for those state-level programs. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, for example, might encourage states to expand on initiatives that he spearheaded as governor of Indiana, according to Wong. These include new procedures for measuring student growth—through things like testing—and for holding teachers accountable for student performance. Pence also pushed to increase funding for quality charter schools while shutting down the failing ones, and expanded the state’s school-voucher program.

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With tax cuts a major campaign pledge at the national and state level, Wong believes that states will have less money to spend on schools. “States,” he said, “will have to find creative ways to fund their education priorities.”

And less money for education is likely to mean even more conflict about the allocation of resources. McGuinn predicted that cities and urban centers, in particular, will suffer. In the past, the federal government put pressure on the states to make sure that funding was distributed fairly. Without that pressure, he said, the new Republican leaders who will help write the funding formulas for their states might give less to cities and more to areas with higher number of Republican voters.

“I’m a centrist Democrat. As someone who studies education policy, I’ve always been concerned about equity. In the absence of federal presence on this issue, the states haven’t done a good job on this in the past,” McGuinn said. “It makes me nervous. Money isn’t everything, but when we’re talking about poor schools, less resources to those needy schools concerns me greatly.”

Wong shared McGuinn’s concern over the declining federal role in determining the funding for schools: “Historically, states, in the absence of federal guidance, have been passive on these issues. The federal government is uniquely positioned to take on educational equity as a national priority.”

Another key theme marking this new political era will involve school choice—policies focused on giving parents alternatives to their default, neighborhood public schools. Charter-school expansion, tax credits for parents who send their kids to private schools, and vouchers for families to use for the education option of their choosing—policies that McGuinn described as the “the bread and butter of the Republican agenda”—are all on the horizon, particularly in states where the GOP controls both houses of the legislature and the executive spot. Republican leaders will be supported by continued public support of charter schools, some research that shows the effectiveness of such schools in urban areas, and by key people in the Trump administration. “The floodgates,” McGuinn said, “could really open up on school-choice legislation.”

The Common Core, a set of learning benchmarks or standards that were initially adopted by 46 states, is likely to be under scrutiny yet again—as will the tests and the teacher-accountability provisions that often accompany those standards. While many Republican governors were initially supportive of the Common Core, the widely held perception among conservatives that it represents an expansion of federal power could put this program in jeopardy, especially in the 25 states controlled by Republicans on all fronts. These leaders, according to experts, are also likely to respond favorably to the anti-testing backlash among some parents— though McGuinn didn’t think that the states would necessarily end all standards and tests. He pointed out that New Jersey, where the opt-out movement was especially strong, did little more than simply rename the Common Core standards rather than replacing them. And in Pence’s Indiana, too, legislators replaced the Common Core with what some experts argue are a remarkably similar set of standards.

Because of the strict accountability provisions that accompanied the standards in many states, the teachers’ unions are unlikely to oppose the Republicans as they dismantle the Common Core. However, those two groups are likely to clash on other issues. McGuinn believes that there will be more challenges in the state capitals to the teacher’s collective-bargaining rights, as has already happened in Wisconsin, as well as a pullback on pensions for teachers.

Fraught politics will not surround every new policy, though. For example, state-level efforts to expand access to early-childhood education, as Wong pointed out, are generally supported by both Republicans and Democrats: “A lot of governors, as well as Trump, are converging on the notion that kids need to be ready to learn by first grade.” So, they are writing policies for high-quality kindergarten and pre-k programs in blue and red states; states from Tennessee to Vermont, for example, have already successfully expanded pre-k programs. This movement will pick up momentum in the next few years, Wong predicted.

And while Republicans might control government, Wong pointed out, they won’t be able to win every fight. They’re without doubt going to get pushback from powerful groups like the teachers’ unions and other professional organizations, which have their own priorities. “Conflicts between interest groups and the new Republican leaders,” Wong said, “will intensify in the next few years.”

Trump’s secretary of education—as of Sunday, the former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and the Center for Education Reform director Jeanne Allen are reportedly being considered—as well as Pence and Trump himself, will shape schools by using their platform with the national media to reach the country. But the less flashy occupants of the country’s state capitals will have the biggest impact on schools; and with their sweep in November’s elections, Americans can expect some major shifts in policy.