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5 Questions about the Education Implications of the 2016 Elections

The world struggles to grasp the meaning of a Donald Trump presidency, and those of us in education policy are no different. Many of our education writers and analysts here at New America have already written about the fate of the U.S. Department of Education, the fact that teachers are already being unfairly characterized as stoking students’ fears, a likely target in the conservatives’ fight against “political correctness,” the cloudy future of career and technical education, and the reasons for deep concern for dual-language learners and their families.

We are also tracking issues related to civil rights more generally, funding, child care and early learning, teachers, and more. Given Trump’s contradictions, inconsistencies, or silence on these issues, the only solid prediction is for an abundance of guessing games and confusion over the next several months. Here are some of our top questions—questions we hope reporters and education leaders will also be asking so that we can get some clarity on what Trump and those he taps for his administration actually envision:

  1. Trump has said, “I’m not cutting services but I’m cutting spending.”  What kind of spending cuts does he envision for education programs? And how do services continue without funding?

A key moment to watch will come in February, when the President traditionally submits his annual budget request to Congress. Will he be calling for increased, flat, or reduced funding for the U.S. Department of Education? It’s an open question given how little he talked about education during the campaign. But one good bet is that the Republican-controlled Congress will be pushing for reductions, consistent with conservatives’ general desire for a smaller federal footprint and the spending caps under which they are currently operating. A further question: How might those reductions be spread across Title I, IDEA, and various other programs authorized in the Every Student Succeeds Act, including family engagement, early learning, and technology programs? Depending on those answers, state leaders may either have to make cuts themselves or increase their education budgets to make up the difference. Are state leaders anticipating this and making adjustments in their own revenue strategies?

2. Is Trump serious about reprioritizing $20 billion in existing federal funds to support a school choice initiative? If so, what programs will be drained to pay for it? And will states and local school boards go along?

On the campaign trail in Cleveland, Trump talked about “inner-city” students “trapped in failing government schools.” As Politico reported in September, he promised to redirect federal dollars to start a $20-billion block grant program to spur “school choice,” but he did not provide details. Republicans in Congress may feel emboldened to resurrect a 2014 legislative proposal by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to provide $2,100 scholarships to children to attend any school of their choice. Part of Trump’s proposal involves getting states to contribute even greater levels of funding toward this effort. What will he recommend as a path for incentivizing states to do this?

3. Will a Trump Administration reduce or eliminate the Office for Civil Rights?

In that Cleveland speech, Trump also said he “may cut the Department of Education,” though our colleague Alexander Holt explains why this is very unlikely. What may be more likely, however, is that offices within the department are ignored, cut, or left to push paper without anyone ever filling deputy positions and other management roles.  There is at least one office that is very likely at risk, especially given conservatives’ desire to curb what they see as “political correctness” and overreaching: the Office for Civil Rights. If there is a shell Office of Civil Rights or no staffed Office at all, who will manage and analyze the data from states and localities that help identify disparities, such as who has access to early childhood education or the high rate of suspension and expulsion for black boys? Without data, how can our leaders track progress or backsliding in protecting the rights of all students? In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump and his co-author Dave Shiflett wrote that students in today’s schools “aren’t safe” and called schools “centers of crime.” In Cleveland he said: “This is the new civil rights agenda of our time: the right to a safe community, a quality education, and wonderful job.” How can Trump address these issues—and become more informed about them generally, given that his hyperbole does not match reality in the majority of school districts—without the infrastructure of the Office of Civil Rights?

4. Will Trump’s child care proposal be adjusted to ensure it is focused on quality and on helping low-income families afford quality?

Trump’s proposal calls for tax deductions for the “cost of child care” but makes no mention of quality child care or how to ensure that caregivers and teachers are trained and compensated fairly. On Trump’s transition website, “high-quality early childhood” is included in his education section, but there is no meat behind it. Decades of studies on early learning, described last year in a consensus letter from researchers from around the country, show that the quality of interactions between young children and their caregivers or teachers makes a significant and lasting difference in children’s well-being and their ability to succeed later in school. This means attention and investments are needed to better prepare, develop, support, and compensate the educators working with children birth through age eight.

The proposed deductions in and of themselves will do nothing on this front and they also raise questions about whether low-income families will actually benefit. Tax deductions are only of help to people who make enough money to owe income tax—a proportion of the population that varies each year. (Here’s an explanation of why from a CNN piece in 2013.) In September at the New America event “Care in America,” Dan Kowalski, who was then Trump’s deputy national policy director, said that low-income families who are not helped by the child care deduction would be able to benefit instead from an enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit. With House Speaker Ryan hoping to introduce tax reform, there is a fair chance that these provisions will be taken up by Congress. Will these reforms support low-income and middle-income families by increasing their access to high-quality early care and education? What incentives, if any, will be put in place to help families direct their dollars to high-quality providers? And in the meantime, what might happen to programs that are focused on quality and based on evidence of effectiveness, such as the Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, which was authorized under Title II of the now-at-risk Affordable Care Act and reauthorized for two years in an unrelated bill last year?

5.  Trump says he is a champion of workers, but does his support extend to one of the largest workforces in our country—our teachers?

Trump said very little about schools or teachers during the campaign, but in his speech in Cleveland, he offhandedly mentioned the issue of teacher quality and teacher pay. Trump said that his mission was to break what he called a “government monopoly” on schools that are “protecting a lot of people that have a lot of really high paying jobs.” He continued by paying a compliment to Deborah Mays, the head of the charter school where he spoke: “And they are not doing the jobs like Deborah, that I can tell you, and Deborah, they are making a lot more money than you but we’ll have to talk about that later” -- a claim that was accompanied by zero evidence. Even without those comments, of course, education leaders have broader questions about how a Trump administration would treat or work with teacher unions. In general, Republicans are less inclined to support union causes than Democrats (though life was not peachy for teacher unions under President Obama either, as they opposed programs that included merit pay or otherwise reformed the way they were paid). School choice programs may very likely lead to even more protests from teachers who are concerned that public school budgets will be cut, or local teachers unions will be undermined. How would a Trump Administration respond—if at all—to those concerns?

Undoubtedly, there are many more issues to track than these five. Analysts across the various initiatives in our Education Policy Program will continue watching, researching, and writing, with help from news outlets like Ed Week and Politico that are working hard to keep education leaders in the know. And over the next year, we also expect that we will learn a lot from those who work on the ground in early learning centers, schools, colleges, local and state agencies, and other institutions that we  often visit during research for our policy papers and commentary. Don’t hesitate to reach out and keep us at New America informed as well.