Analysis: What a Trump presidency might mean for K-12

It’s not that Tuesday’s elections were inconsequential at the state level.

Republicans picked up three more seats in the House and another seat in the Senate, swelling the GOP’s supermajorities to 59-11 and 29-6 in the respective chambers.

The Legislature also received some validation at the polls, as voters passed HJR 5. This arcane but hotly contested amendment gives lawmakers something they have coveted for years — language in the state Constitution that ensures their power to review and reject state agency rules.

None of this is trivial, necessarily.

But it feels like small stuff.

Donald Trump’s narrow and surprising victory consumed much of the political oxygen Tuesday night. That is sure to continue in the coming days — as pundits shift their attention from trying to figure out what happened at the polls to what will happen during the transition, and during a Trump presidency.

Predicting what happens next is, at best, a dicey proposition.

Let’s focus K-12 — our bailiwick here at Idaho Education News.

Neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton said much about K-12 policy during the campaign. Four and a half testy hours of televised debate came and went with scarcely a mention of education.

Not that this is particularly unusual. Federal education policy is secondary to state education policy — which is why, at Idaho Education News, we have made the conscious decision to cover Statehouse politics much more closely than federal politics.

In teasing out Trump’s positions on K-12, such as they are, two themes emerge. Trump has said he wants to put $20 billion of federal money into a school choice and voucher system block grant program. And he has railed against Common Core standards and called for their repeal.

But it’s unclear how either of these concepts would translate, even with fellow Republicans in the Idaho Statehouse.

A push for vouchers? While legislators have been quick to embrace school choice, particularly in the form of charter schools, a voucher system faces some serious obstacles. The first is the Idaho Constitution’s strong language forbidding the use of public dollars “to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church, sectarian or religious denomination whatsoever.”

That doesn’t mean the Constitution can never be changed (Case in point: HJR 5, approved by lawmakers and ratified by voters Tuesday night). And Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, took a run at amending this language on sectarian schools earlier this year — eventually conceding that his amendment could apply to a voucher system. Still, amending the Constitution is a tall order, requiring two-thirds support in both chambers, and legislative leaders haven’t appeared to be in much of a hurry to plunge into the voucher debate.

A Trump block grant program could embolden some lawmakers looking for added incentive to push for vouchers — but that doesn’t change the daunting math of a constitutional amendment.

Common Core: More of the same? It would seem unlikely that Idaho legislators would revisit the Common Core debate. With the backing of education and business groups, and key political leaders such as Gov. Butch Otter, the math and English language arts standards seem engrained in the Idaho education landscape.

States had the power to enact Common Core, and the certainly have the power to repeal the standards — as Vice President-elect Mike Pence knows, since Indiana ditched Common Core during his time as governor. Here again, a Trump victory could energize critics of Common Core. But now in their fourth year, the standards enjoy well-entrenched support.

Staying the course on ESSA? A new administration could always take a new look at the feds’ overarching education law. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act didn’t merely replace the universally unpopular No Child Left Behind law. It also authorized states to chart their own educational course — from creating their own accountability systems to devising plans to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra has embraced ESSA, and the increased authority that comes with it. Given Trump’s stated desire to cut back the U.S. Department of Education, it would seem unlikely that his administration would be in any hurry to claw back education policymaking authority from the states.

The Trump election could have a much more profound impact on other Idaho issues — particularly health care.

Several Statehouse observers have been quick to speculate that Trump’s election will further snarl Idaho’s debate over its “gap population,” the 78,000 Idahoans who qualify neither for Medicaid nor the state’s health insurance exchange. Another factor: The Two Democratic lawmakers who lost Tuesday were Sen. Dan Schmidt of Moscow and Rep. John Rusche of Lewiston, physicians who were among the Legislature’s most vocal advocates for Medicaid expansion.

These weren’t trivial election results.

But they pale in contrast to Tuesday’s biggest story.

More elections coverage

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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