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In the last 20 years, Republican education policy has focused on expanding the choices granted to local communities, families and students. Where it will go next, with Donald Trump the presumptive leader of the Republican Party, is anyone’s guess.
“It’s hard to know what the heck [Trump] thinks,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “I don’t think he has thought deeply or long about education policy.”
Last week, the Republican Platform Committee began to discuss what it thinks should be included in the “Great Families, Education, Health Care, and Criminal Justice” section of its 2016 Platform. Current points of agreement include the ideas that students are more likely to achieve academically if their parents are married heterosexuals, student data should be more private, and merit pay should be granted to high-performing teachers.
The party also agreed to leave in wording that would encourage states to offer the Bible as an elective literature course.
“I would remind the body that the first Congress of the United States in 1789 called for the distribution of Bibles to all school children in the United States at that time,” said Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State for Kansas. “This is an important principle that our founding fathers chose to embrace.”
The platform is supposed to be finalized and released this week, and so far seems to be focused on maintaining the party’s traditional emphasis on teaching moral values in public schools. That would be a marked change of tone from the recent past for conservatives generally and Republican Party lawmakers specifically, whose ideas about restoring parental control and increasing market-driven free choice have contributed much to the current education reform movement.
Conservative educators were behind the creation of charter schools, publicly funded schools with increased authority over how they are run and whom they hire. There are now more than 6,700 public charter schools in the country, serving more than 3 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Vouchers, which allow families to choose private providers and use their own portion of public funding to send their child to an institution of their choice, is another conservative policy initiative that first began to gain traction in the 1990s. While vouchers haven’t become widespread within the K-12 system, many states rely heavily on some sort of voucher program to subsidize early education for low-income families.
Many charter schools have proven to be fairly successful at helping their students achieve. Hess said it was more important to him to note that the best performing charters have long waitlists, which he sees as evidence that parents are now better able to choose where to send their children to school.
As charters and vouchers began to take off in the 1990s, Democratic reformers latched on to several of the key principles behind such programs, especially charter schools. But while the traditional teacher union leadership decried the rightward shift of the current reform movement, conservatives like Hess felt the movement swung too far left.
“I would say the current reform movement is very much a left-wing phenomenon,” Hess said. “It’s very much framed in terms of race-conscious policy and very invested in increasing Washington’s role in schools.”
Many of the specific policy concerns Hess mentioned during a long conversation about conservative education policy are also on the list of concerns of the largely liberal education establishment: too much focus on discipline in schools, too much testing and tracking of scores, and the Common Core State Standards, to name a few. The passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is meant to return a significant amount of control to states and local districts, could bring the two sides together to try to change the direction of national education policy.
And then there’s the question of federal money, which Republicans have historically felt should be spent sparingly on education. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., co-chair of the Republican platform committee, said party policy should focus on ensuring that taxpayers are getting a fair return on their investment in education.
“We spend a lot of money on education, more than many other countries,” Foxx said, “and we don’t always [get] the best value from that.”
So far, Trump himself has said very little about any of these issues. He has repeated the now standard Republican call to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, a tradition begun by former President Ronald Reagan. He has also said he would get rid of the Common Core, a power not granted to the president, since the Common Core State Standards have been separately adopted by each of the 42 states that use them.
Education is not listed on Trump’s campaign website as one of his “positions,” which include instead: Pay for the Wall, Healthcare Reform, U.S.-China Trade Reform, Veterans Administration Reforms, Tax Reform, Second Amendment Rights and Immigration Reform. (In contrast, education is mentioned three times on Hillary Clinton’s issues list. She has specific policy proposals for “Early childhood education,” “K-12 education” and “Making college affordable by taking on student debt.”)
Despite the absence of education from his official positions, Trump called education a national priority, alongside health care and security, during a CNN Town Hall event in March.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s choice for running mate, has a more established record on education. He oversaw several years of steady improvement, as judged by the state’s math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He also started a state preschool program in Indiana, albeit a very small one that critics say doesn’t serve enough of the children it was created to help. Early education is reportedly another area the 2016 Republican Platform says should be out of the federal government’s purview.
Even assuming Trump takes a formal position on education during the conventions or during the fall campaign, Hess does not see Trump having an effect on the long-term thinking of conservative education policy wonks.
“If Trump doesn’t win, he’s going to have little or no footprint on policy because his campaign is not really about policy,” Hess said. “If the guy wins the election, he will [have an effect on policy]. What effect he’ll have, none of us actually know. People who claim to know, don’t.”
Mikhail Zinshteyn contributed to this report.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.