K-12

OPINION: The mystery of President-elect Donald J. Trump and his education agenda: ‘There’s not much more’

Republican president-elect Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd during his election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown in the early morning hours of November 9, 2016 in New York City.

America, we learned Tuesday night, remains deeply divided on a vision for our future. Not much new about that, but the nature of President-elect Trump’s candidacy, campaign and election represents a discontinuity, as America had never seen a campaign or a candidate like him before in a presidential race.

I’ve looked at President-elect Trump’s campaign website, and read the speeches he’s given that mentioned K-12 education. There’s a basic theme: America spends a great deal on K-12 education, but our results are mediocre, making us less competitive with other countries. The major impediment to success is failing government schools that African-American and Hispanic children in the inner cities attend. The solution is giving families with poor children federal and state dollars that will enable them to attend the school of their choice. School choice is the civil rights issue of our time.

There’s not much more. Trump is also on record opposing the Common Core voluntary curricular standards adopted by most states (with some federal encouragement) and supporting merit pay for teachers, though he has not proposed a specific initiative.

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The engine of the Trump school-choice policy agenda is reallocation of $20 billion in the federal budget for block grants, with incentives for states to serve the one million schoolchildren living in “absolute poverty” by promoting private and public school choice, magnet schools, and charter schools, with options for the money to follow the child to his or her school. He has called on states to contribute an additional $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice, with the goal of providing approximately $12,000 in school-choice funds to “every K-12 student who today lives in poverty.”

Where will this $20 billion come from? Where will states strapped for cash find the additional $110 billion in their own coffers to add to this pool of support? There’s no blueprint for the federal contribution—not even a sense of whether these funds will be “reprioritized” from within the federal Education Department, or whether the President-elect proposes to cannibalize funds from other agencies. As for the state allocation, Trump seems to be relying on the power of persuasion. In his one education-focused campaign speech, delivered at a charter school in Cleveland, Ohio, in September, he said, “I will use the pulpit of the presidency to campaign for this in all 50 states. And I will call upon the American people to elect officials at the city, state and federal level who support school choice.”

But persuasion doesn’t create dollars, and that’s the big missing link between the bully pulpit of Presidential support and the reallocation of huge chunks of state education budgets in response. We can’t even get states and local school districts to follow their own laws on school funding, let alone make massive reallocations. Could this actually happen during the short-term horizons that frame most politicians’ behavior?

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The same is true for the challenges of expanding school choice. Do good schools have lots of empty seats? If that were true, perhaps we could solve the problem simply by funding poor children to attend them. But most schools that are regarded as successful are oversubscribed, and the paths to expansion include adding more students to them, or opening more schools like them, which may be undesirable or take years to occur, respectively.

The model for President-elect Trump’s proposal may be the urban charter schools of Boston and New York City. High-quality research has documented that the economically disadvantaged students who attend oversubscribed charter schools in these communities outperform their counterparts on standardized tests, and students attending Boston’s charter schools are better prepared for college and more likely to enroll.

The evidence on Massachusetts charter schools outside of Boston is not nearly so favorable, and a recent Texas study suggests that charter schools do not increase students’ eventual earnings, and may actually lower them. School choice in general, and the expansion of the charter sector in particular, may or may not work to raise student achievement and close gaps. The type of charter school may matter, with “No Excuses” models seemingly more effective than other models. It’s premature to conclude that the market model underpinning Trump’s school-choice expansion proposal will work as intended.

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There’s an additional wrinkle: Expanding school choice may not be the will of the people. On Tuesday, voters in Massachusetts considered a ballot question that would have allowed officials there to approve up to 12 new or expanded charter schools per year, outside of an existing cap. Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly rejected the ballot proposal, by a vote of 62 percent to 38 percent. Of course, this specific vote may or may not generalize to other choice proposals.

In his school choice speech last month, Trump argued that, with his support, and that of his followers, huge changes were possible. “I’m confident that the politicians will not be able to suppress the will of the people anymore,” he said. “It is too much. Too strong. Eventually, they break. They’re politicians. They always break.”

Related: How can education reform the minds of Trump voters?

It’s a truism that campaigning and governing require different skill sets. What worked on the campaign trail may not be as successful in the Oval Office. This will be a source of frustration for those who supported Trump, and a source of solace for those who did not. One thing is clear, however: With his election to the presidency, Donald J. Trump is now a politician.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Aaron Pallas is professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and… See Archive