Trump’s K-12 plans could hit turbulence in Congress

To the limited extent that he discussed K-12, presidential candidate Donald Trump talked about big changes.

  • A $20 billion school choice block grant program.
  • An end to Common Core.
  • Perhaps even an end to the U.S. Department of Education.

As president, Trump’s plans could run squarely into some obstacles on Capitol Hill, a group of panelists said Monday.

Speaking at a post-election forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Education Writers Association, education observers and reporters handicapped Trump’s prospects on education reforms.

School choice

The block grant program is probably Trump’s most concrete K-12 proposal. He has said he would like to use the $20 billion in grants to encourage matching state spending in school choice.

Aside from the challenge of finding the money, Trump also faces some political challenges. Charter schools enjoy bipartisan backing, but a voucher program supporting private schools will run into resistance.

“Full-scale private school choice will be a battle,” said Vic Klatt, a former Republican staffer who now works for the Penn Hill Group, a Washington, D.C., group that lobbies on education and work force issues.

It’s also proven to be a futile battle in the past. Vouchers didn’t get anywhere in the crafting of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and this tends to be an issue that galvanizes the Democratic base, said Bethany Little, a former Democratic aide who works for EducationCounsel, a Washington, D.C., consulting group.

In Idaho, a Trump school choice grant program also faces a constitutional hurdle — a strict ban on diverting public money to religious schools.

Common Core

Trump repeatedly criticized the math and English language arts standards, in place in Idaho and more than 40 other states. His running mate, Mike Pence, oversaw a statewide repeal of Common Core as Indiana governor.

Trump can “declare victory” on the issue, and use his bully pulpit to denounce Common Core, and encourage other states to follow Indiana’s example, said David Cleary, chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

But beyond the power of the pulpit, Trump’s options are limited — by Congress. Responding to what some lawmakers considered the Obama White House’s meddling on Common Core, Congress inserted language into ESSA to prevent the federal government from imposing academic standards. In essence, this language would leave the Common Core decision solely in the hands of the states.

The role of the U.S. Department of Education

At various times, Trump the candidate talked about paring back the Education Department, or eliminating it entirely.

Trump wasn’t the first candidate to talk about mothballing the Education Department. And he wouldn’t be the first president to try to act on the idea. After his election in 1980, President Reagan sought to shut down the fledgling agency, but had no success.

Trump might not have any more success than Reagan. But he has other methods at his disposal. For example, he could use the budget to try to “starve” the department, said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group focused on higher education.

Klatt downplays the prospects of shutting down the department. Having worked on legislation in the past to eliminate an agency, he says it’s a very complex proposition.

“It’s mostly just show business,” he said.

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