Superintendent's Corner

Education under Trump

Friday is Inauguration Day for President-elect Donald Trump. While the day will almost certainly present celebrations and protests, a non-violent transition of power is a hallmark of a stable democratic republic. Last week, I discussed President Obama’s education legacy. Now, we can turn attention to what changes may come with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress.

While President-elect Trump did not focus heavily on education policy during the campaign, the information that was available led many to believe school choice would be a major focus. Trump also lashed out about the overreach of the federal government in education policy, so it was believed some form of “devolution” (reducing the size and scale of the federal government, deferring more power to the state and local level) would also be a key part of Trump’s approach.

Trump’s nomination of billionaire philanthropist and education activist Betsy DeVos for secretary of education seems to confirm that these policy positions will be front and center. With little personal or professional background in public education, DeVos has used her family’s wealth and influence to stimulate the expansion of school choice in her home state of Michigan. DeVos is also on record as being highly critical of the role of government.

Like many of Trump’s appointments, DeVos is not without controversy.

In an unusual move, her confirmation hearings were delayed, but are expected to start this week. DeVos came from a wealthy family herself and married into the Amway fortune. According to various news sources covering Washington D.C. politics, completion of disclosure documents regarding financial holdings and a review for potential conflicts of interest and ethical concerns have taken longer than expected. Even with DeVos being forthcoming with information, the complexity of the DeVos fortune makes the ethics review a detailed endeavor.

Ms. DeVos has wielded significant political power in Michigan through campaign contributions and subsequent appointments to high level state and nonprofit roles. DeVos will likely face criticism over her record of school choice, including her failed efforts to create a voucher system that would flow public school dollars into private schools. She was effective at moving forward state laws, which dramatically expanded charter schools in Michigan.

For DeVos (and Trump), the problem is that Michigan is often highlighted as an example of how not to implement charter schools. A “wild west” approach to oversight and regulation has led to significant profiteering by for-profit charter management firms, school re-segregation and poor performing charters being allowed to remain open.

Even with ethics and track record issues, Republicans in the Senate are likely to support their new president’s nominees and, barring any defections, DeVos probably has the votes to win a confirmation.

In looking at the specific policy area of expanding school choice, Trump discussed the gigantic sum of a $20 billion block grant given to states. It is still not clear where these dollars would come from and how the program would be structured. Trump and DeVos might take a page from the Obama playbook and dangle a significant sum of cash in order to incentivise states to pursue their policy goals, as Obama did with Race to the Top.

Another hurdle Trump and DeVos will face is a Congress who just finished a major overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Formerly known as “No Child Left Behind,” Congress ran nearly a decade overdue on re-authorizing the law and there may be little appetite to reopen that discussion, especially since Congress may have its hands full with health care and tax reform work being higher priorities.

Turning to the other major policy area of devolution, it is more likely that Trump and DeVos will make traction on that front. With Republicans in Congress controlling purse strings and a Republican president and secretary controlling the bureaucracy, we should expect some reduction in the size and scale of the U.S. Department of Education.

In my professional judgment, I forecast that Trump and DeVos will make progress on their devolution efforts, but find the implementation of their school choice expansion and private school voucher proposals more difficult. The former can be done in Washington, but the latter relies on agreement and execution at the state and local level. Many states may not be keen on privatizing their public education systems to chase President-elect Trump’s possible incentives.

As interesting as all this might be, the big question remains: Will these two major policy changes result in better outcomes for children? Politics aside, that’s all that really matters.

School choice has a decidedly mixed record of improving achievement at scale. While we may see more kids in private and charter school options as a result of Trump’s proposals, unless a reform fundamentally changes the learning experience of a child, nothing is really different or better. It is not immediately clear how expanded school choice would change these experiences at the child level.

As for devolution, Trump may find some supporters on both sides of the political aisle. The Obama administration overplayed their hand in using federal power and money to push an education agenda and there is a strong feeling that the Secretary and the U.S. Department of Education need to have their ears pinned back and their authority reduced. While we could probably do with a little less Washington interference, it is not clear how this reform changes the learning experience of a child.

Until we get down to that micro-level and really change the practice and experience of teaching and learning, it’s all political theater.

Jason E. Glass is the Superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.