With the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency (I will take a long time to get used to typing that), education policy until at least January 2021 is a giant question mark. Secretary Clinton’s education policy was fairly easy to predict – she’d attempt to chart a “middle course” between the full embrace of corporate reform by President Obama and the concerns of her union supporters and close confidants like AFT President Randi Weingarten. She’d have softened the test and punishment aspects of federal education policy while continuing to support standards and testing in general, and she’d try to pivot the charter school debate into more oversight for the sector as a whole and narrowing federal support to co-called “high quality” charter schools. That’s hardly my ideal, but at least it would have been highly predictable territory and her credentials as someone genuinely interested in policy meant that she’d have approached education with a degree of thoughtfulness that I’d have appreciated.
President Trump? Not so much.
The only thing guaranteed by Donald Trump is something that I will deeply regret and his own preening self-regard. Make no mistake: education policy in the Trump Administration will favor privatization and be hostile to unionized teachers. The evidence for this is fairly clear in his choice of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his Vice President. Governor Pence made education reform a central feature of his administration, and the results have not been especially pretty. Pence’s administration made a hard charge for additional charter school funding, although he did increase oversight in the sector. He also pushed to allow more public funds to go to vouchers for private schools, and he “rejected” the Common Core standards, only to have Indiana develop its own that look remarkably like the Common Core standards along with an Indiana specific standardized test that costs far more than the federally backed PARCC and SBAC exams. Even if Mr. Pence does not have much say in federal education policy (his real passions in government seem far more related to banning abortion and making life hell for LGBTQ people), Trump surrogate Donald Trump Jr. used his July convention speech to trash public education in the United States without regard for facts or nuance, and when Donald Trump spoke on education he focused mostly on bashing the Common Core Standards and emphasizing school choice as curative.
Suffice to say: Education policy in the Trump administration will come down to as much privatization as they can squeeze in, aided by a Congress that is wired to the bone to hate teacher unions and to believe that the free market can do anything. People who loathe the Common Core standards will be relieved to see an administration that is hostile to them, but they certainly cannot expect any support on keeping public education PUBLIC, and teachers in unionized states can expect Friedrich’s copycat suits to work their way back into the federal courts.
But exactly HOW all of this comes about and exactly how SERIOUS Mr. Trump is about his education policy is a gargantuan question mark. If you do not believe me, consider the two known names on his list to become Secretary of Education: The first is Dr. Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow on education issues for the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, a former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, and a former holder of education appointments under California Governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dr. Evers has a libertarian background and his education priorities are neatly aligned with the new administration: against the Common Core standards and in favor of school choice. However, it is also undeniable that he would bring genuine policy experience and experience in both state and federal level education policy. He has a doctorate in political science from Stanford University and has spent decades writing and researching education policy as well as providing advice to governments on that issue. While I may not agree with all of his priorities, there is no reason to doubt that the Department of Education under his watch would be actually managed.
President-elect Trump’s OTHER top choice to head the Department of Education? Retired pediatric neurosurgeon and former rival for the Republican nomination Dr. Ben Carson. I did not just mistype that. Dr. Carson is obviously an intelligent and talented man in his chosen field – nobody rises to the level that he did in a field like that without having truly prodigious skills. However, he has absolutely zero qualifications in education, and when he spoke on education issues during the primaries, he tended to say bizarre and frightening things, such as his idea that the Department of Education should cut off federal funds to colleges and universities “guilty” of promoting “extreme bias.” Dr. Carson is also well known for saying lots of things that make no factual or historic sense, from his assertion that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built as granaries, to his belief that being gay is a choice, because prison, to his belief that evolution is the literal work of Satan, to his belief that there is no “war on women” but there may be a “war on what’s inside of women” – presumably he meant to reference fetuses, but considering how many organs are inside a human body, it wasn’t precisely clear.
So these are our apparent choices for Secretary of Education during a Trump administration: One is a libertarian/conservative research fellow with a doctorate in political science, decades of experience in education policy, and who has spent considerable time in both state and federal education policy circles. One is a retired surgeon with no relevant experience whatsoever, who has a history of saying plainly false or borderline deranged things on a host of topics he doesn’t understand, and who thinks the federal Department of Education should spend its time looking for cases of liberal bias in higher education and then slashing funding. One will pursue policies that promote school choice and privatization but will also administer the department with an actual understanding of how the system operates. One will probably operate the department with all of the discipline of Donald Trump campaign rally, complete with bizarre stream of consciousness and counterfactual statements and no discernible direction at all. One will be a person whose policies and practices we can confront and counter based upon evidence and something resembling logical discourse. One will essentially dare us to understand a single blessed word that comes out of his mouth.
The kicker? We really have no idea which one we are going to get. If Mike Pence has any real input in this administration, we will probably get Dr. Evers. If Mr. Trump follows his gut and flare for showmanship, we probably get Dr. Carson. This is education beginning in 2017. May G-d have mercy on us all.