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Trump on education
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Monday, March 7, 2016, in Madison, Miss. Credit: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Donald J. Trump’s significant victories in March 1’s “Super Tuesday” primaries and beyond have put him in a prime position to win the Republican nomination for president. What would a President Trump mean for education?

I am not the first person to point out that this is a difficult question to answer, because on this issue, as on many others, Trump has been vague and his positions have been inconsistent. And he has no track record in public office, so there is nothing to refer back to for guidance.

That hasn’t stopped some commentators from speculating. And while much of the speculation may turn out to be off base, it is worth looking into how a change of administrations might affect education.

Related: Academic expectations around the country, updated for Common Core

The few statements Trump has made about education address the Common Core State Standards and the U.S. Department of Education. He has used his typically blunt rhetoric to criticize both, but in reality, his power to make dramatic changes in either is quite limited.

“Eliminating the education department has proven to be a sound bite on the campaign trail but nothing more.”

Take the Common Core. In a Facebook video, he stated, “The Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue.” Yet as president, Trump could do very little about the Common Core. State boards of education adopted the standards, and while there have been numerous attempts by state legislatures to repeal their adoption, almost all of these efforts have failed. While some states have altered the standards somewhat or changed their name, they remain the guideposts for education in more than 40 states.

Could a president step in? The Every Student Succeeds Act, the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was signed into law in December, explicitly prohibits the federal government from interfering in state actions around the Common Core.

The law states: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to prohibit a state from withdrawing from the Common Core State Standards or from otherwise revising their standards.” And it prohibits “any officer or employee of the federal government” from “tak[ing] any action against a state that exercises its right” to withdraw from the standards. The law doesn’t say that the federal government can’t require a state to withdraw from the Common Core, but doing so would be a major imposition of federal control over state standards — the opposite of what Trump claims to support.

Trump has also suggested that he would eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, as a number of Republican candidates have proposed over the years. Ronald Reagan, the first president elected after the department was created, in 1979, drew up a plan for abolishing it, but he didn’t carry it out. And every president elected after him has claimed to be an “education president” and has maintained the department. Eliminating the education department has proven to be a sound bite on the campaign trail but nothing more.

But even if Trump bucks that trend and somehow persuades Congress to go along, the impact will be less than it might appear. Yes, Education would no longer be a Cabinet-level agency and the secretary of education would no longer sit in Cabinet meetings. But the functions of the department would mostly remain. They are required by statute, and would continue, though under another departments’ auspices. For example, under Reagan’s plan — uncovered in the very first issue ever of Education Week – Pell Grants and student loans would have shifted to the Treasury Department, and civil rights enforcement would have shifted to the Justice Department. The Education Department would have been downgraded to a foundation that would have conducted research and distributed aid to states in the form of block grants.

Related: If the president won’t put children first, who will?

While it did not go nearly as far as that plan, ESSA did reduce the authority of the federal department and gave quite a bit more flexibility to states. It also includes language expressly prohibiting the Secretary of Education from interfering in state actions in a number of areas, such as assessments and teacher evaluations. In that way, ESSA at least partly achieved the goal of enhancing local control over education. And since it took Congress eight years to pass ESSA, it doesn’t seem likely that lawmakers will reopen the debate over the federal role any time soon.

All of this does not mean that a President Trump would have little impact on education. The federal government, even under a reduced role, still issues regulations and enforces laws on issues like civil rights, and a Trump administration would likely seek to weaken controls over state and local actions. For example, as the founder of a for-profit educational institution (Trump University), Trump would be much less likely than the Obama Administration to crack down on proprietary colleges.

A Trump administration would also be unlikely to propose new programs, such as the early-education programs or college-tuition assistance that the Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have proposed.

But perhaps the most significant impact a President Trump could have on education would be with his rhetoric. Trump has been, shall we say, not shy about expressing his views on almost any topic, even if what he says is often false. (In his Facebook video, he said the U.S. spends “far more per pupil than any other country in the world, by far — it’s not even a close second”; in fact, Austria, Norway, and Switzerland spend more.) All presidents from Reagan through Obama have used the “bully pulpit” to express their views about education, highlighting what they see as promising practices and excoriating what they see as inadequacies. Their pronouncements — true or not — can set the terms of the debate over education and set priorities for national action.

The election is still eight months away and Trump is not yet even the Republican nominee. A lot can happen between now and November. But it’s not too early to think about what 2017 could bring to the nation’s schools.

Robert Rothman is a Washington-based education writer.

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