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Can Donald Trump Remake the Face of American Public Education?

Not as much as he might like.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For many public school teachers and activists, the early hours of Election Day may have felt like a quiet affirmation of America’s public education system.

Voters in Massachusetts, often seen as microcosm of the national debate over school choice, rejected a ballot measure that would have lifted a cap on charter schools, a partial rebuke to the corporate interests that flooded the state with millions in advertising. In Georgia, voters slapped down Amendment 1, which would have empowered a new state agency to convert failing public schools into private charters. Even in the face of big-money advertising blitzes by national pro-charter forces, voters seemed to possess renewed faith in public education.

Then Donald Trump won the presidency.

Trump, who assailed the Common Core State Standards Initiative on the campaign trail and pledged to invest $20 billion in fostering charter schools across the country, has sent ripples of uncertainty and fear across education policy circles everywhere. In New York, the prospect of Success Academy chief Eva Moskowitz (who has since declined any potential offer) overseeing the Department of Education riled teachers and administrators at city public schools; the presence of Michelle Rhee, the national face of the school choice reform, on Trump’s cabinet shortlist provoked similar discomfort in D.C. Among the reformers filling the think tanks and non-profit initiatives in Washington, planning around the new education reforms passed last year has ground to a halt.

Will Trump simply decline to enforce reforms like the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress approved last year? Or will he make good on his campaign promise to dismantle Common Core? So far, nobody really knows.

There are limits to Trump’s ability to totally remake the Department of Education. Despite the wild imagination of small-government conservatives, it is highly unlikely Trump will tackle Common Core. The ESSA that Congress passed as a replacement to No Child Left Behind not only shifted responsibility for state school standards to avoid federal one-size-fits-all solutions, but also explicitly forbade the secretary of education from attempting to “influence, incentivize, or coerce” adoption of Common Core standards and their related assessments. For Trump to order his secretary of education to do just that would be politically costly and an abuse of his executive privilege.

This may explain why Trump largely abandoned his Common Core attacks after a few fiery stump speeches following the Republican National Convention; it may also explain why Moskowitz and Rhee, pro-Common Core Democrats, are on his transition team’s shortlist. Dismantling Common Core could prove impossible, even for the president.

“No president can force states to repeal Common Core without violating ESSA, which expressly prohibits the federal government from meddling in local education matters,” Karen Nussle, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, noted earlier this year. “And since it’s the president’s job is to enforce laws, it’s critically important that anyone running for president fully understands federal law as it pertains to education standards and local control.”

Trump can thank GOP lawmakers for being unable to make good on that promise: It was the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate that passed the ESSA (in a bipartisan vote), mainly in response to the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program implemented by Barack Obama’s former secretary of education, Arne Duncan. (The RNC once described Common Core standards as an “inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.”)

“There’s an irony that Congress limited executive powers around education right before Trump was elected,” says Max Yurkofsky, a doctoral student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “The constraints imposed on him by the new ESSA won’t fit well with how he does stuff. Congress’ reaction to Obama might actually prevent Trump from doing the things he wants.”

Race to the Top may end up proving instructive for the Trump administration. When it comes to the $20 billion that the president-elect promised to allocate toward school choice, Trump could plausibly reallocate funds under Title I of the foundational Elementary and Secondary Education Act — part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” passed in 1965, reauthorized once under No Child Left Behind in 2001, and again by the ESSA in 2015 — in the form of competitive block grants to states that pursue school choice initiatives, or even distribute tuition subsidies like vouchers directly to certain families.

The federal government “has a pile of carrots” to incentivize the creation of charter and magnet schools as part of the ESEA’s discretionary funding, says Nicholas Tampio, a political science professor at Fordham University. “The federal government funds about 10 percent of education, overwhelmingly in communities of poor schools,” he adds. “It’s a priority to give school choice measures to disadvantaged kids. Trump is being smart in that the power of the federal government is explicitly for funding disadvantaged kids, by transforming elementary and secondary education. When it comes to the rules for actually enforcing ESSA, there’s a fair amount of leeway.”

This means Trump could incentivize states to experiment with new school choice models under the grounds of serving underprivileged communities. “There are two sides of ESSA, one of which is the loud pronouncement that the secretary of education can’t force states to adopt or coerce things like the Common Core,” Tampio says. “But the other side is that there are mechanisms in place by which state education plans have to be approved by the secretary of education. It’s not purely a matter of states deciding things. Arne Duncan used waivers as a way to get states to comply with a lot of the department’s priorities; it will be very curious to see if the new secretary of education will use that power over Title I funds.”

(The Congressional Budget Office estimated the ESSA would authorize an appropriation of $23.9 billion in 2016, with some $15 million under Title I. We still don’t know where the rest of the money would come from; Trump promised a “reprioritizing [of] existing federal dollars.”)

But while charter schools may attract support from big-money organizations like the Walton Family Foundation and philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, they still require buy-in from the communities they’re ostensibly built to support, namely low-income, often minority-heavy neighborhoods. It’s no wonder that, while opposition to Massachusetts’ Question 2—which would have authorized up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions in existing charters—centered in the Boston suburbs packed with liberals, pre-Election Day polls showed that urban and non-white residents tended to favor lifting the state’s cap on charter schools. The very residents who stand to benefit from a school choice-friendly Trump administration may also have found his campaign rhetoric hard to swallow.

This means that, despite the potential of placing Rhee in his cabinet, Trump may find himself unable to galvanize moderate Democratic education reformers to the cause of school choice. “There’s a pretty big alliance between Republicans and moderate Democrats, but reformers will have to decide whether they have to cooperate with Trump on a choice agenda or not,” Yurkofsky says. “They may because they’re opportunistic, but perhaps they’ll worry that allying with Trump’s tainted brand will do more harm than good.”

On Thursday,Democrats for Education Reform, a national advocacy group that waged a ground war in favor of Question 2, insisted that “no Democrat” accept an appointment by Trump to head the Department of Education, citing the president-elect’s “tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes” while stumping on the 2016 campaign trail.

“The true charter school battle is winning over low-income and minority communities to support the programs, and there’s a chance they can lose that if they tie themselves to Trump,” Yurkofsky says.

Regardless of what Trump can or cannot actually accomplish once he enters the White House in January, it’s likely his education plan will elevate the school-choice debate to a previously unseen level in the national discourse, despite the fact that most decision-making power remains with states. As one Washington education advocate told me, individual states have had years to think about how charters have worked for them; now it’s time for the country at large to do the same.