chairs in a classroom

If there is one issue on which our nation’s two major political parties can generally find some common ground, it is education. After all, while each party has vastly differing views on how best to actually go about educating students, just about everyone agrees that education is generally a good thing.

And education is, undeniably, important.

So it is unsurprising that many have expressed concern about the future of education policy under newly inaugurated President Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

The federal government has a somewhat limited role in education. The vast majority of public school funding comes not from the federal government but from state and local governments, and the 2015 reauthorization of the nation’s cornerstone education law, now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), specifically allocated a great deal of authority over school accountability and academic standards to the states, forbidding the Secretary of Education from, for example, interfering in the adoption of rigorous academic standards.

That said, the billions of federal dollars that flow to public schools and help students pay for college, the regulatory authority of the Department of Education, and the potential for substantial support from a Republican controlled Congress certainly offer President Trump’s administration plenty of opportunity to impact the experiences of American students and families.

Although education issues are broad-ranging and diverse, there are two areas of policy that came up repeatedly during President Trump’s campaign: Eliminating the Common Core State Standards and expanding school choice.

During his campaign, Donald Trump said, “Get rid of Common Core.” DeVos echoed that sentiment by stating unequivocally that she is not a supporter of Common Core.

If ever an education issue had a PR nightmare, it is the Common Core. Misconceptions about the Common Core State Standards abound: That they prescribe a specific curriculum (they don’t), mandate particular teaching methods (they don’t), or were instituted by the federal government (they weren’t). The Common Core State Standards are a set of fairly broad academic benchmarks that students in each grade level should meet. How students are to meet the standards – in other words, the curriculum and teaching methods – is not addressed in the Common Core.

Much of the fight against the Common Core stems from the fact that most educators were not involved in the development and implementation of the standards and from the Obama administration’s support of the Common Core. Under President Obama, the Department of Education offered waivers from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements and grants under the Race to the Top program to incentivize states to adopt the Common Core.

At this point, some 42 states have adopted and implemented the Common Core State Standards. The PSAT and SAT are aligned to the standards. And the tools that the Obama administration used to encourage adoption of the Common Core – NCLB waivers and Race to the Top grants – no longer exist following passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which leaves the new Trump administration with a shortage of means to encourage states to ditch the Common Core.

Will President Trump and Betsy DeVos succeed in getting rid of the Common Core? It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely. The Department of Education could create incentives to encourage states to adopt different standards, but this would represent the same federal overreach that many Senators resented under the Obama administration. And even if such incentives were offered, it would be incredibly difficult and expensive for states to replace the Common Core with anything that is substantially different now that the Common Core has been so widely implemented. What’s more likely is that the Common Core might be slightly modified and/or renamed in many states.

President Trump’s other major education initiative is the expansion of school choice. School choice has long been a contentious topic. Many of those on the right argue that the best means of improving the quality of our schools is to encourage the same type of competition that exists in any other marketplace. In other words, if schools were forced to compete for students (and therefore funding), this competition would result in innovation and reforms that would improve education across the country. Those on the left generally argue that schools are not like other market goods. In a free market, the goal is profit. The goal of public education is supposed to be the public good.

Regardless of how someone feels about school choice, it’s probably going to be the biggest focal point of any education debate in coming years.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to allocate $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice. Newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has spent much of her career advocating for school choice. This is clearly a top issue for K-12 education.

It is unclear exactly where the promised $20 billion would come from given that the Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to approve an extra $20 billion for education spending. ESSA allocates about $15 billion in federal funding for equal access to primary and secondary education, most of which is intended to benefit students in poverty. The Department of Education could attempt to use its regulatory role to try to shift some of that money to vouchers that low income students could use to attend private or charter schools. Anything more than that would likely require reauthorization of ESSA, which was such a contentious process and involved such broad support that it’s unlikely that Congress would want to begin the process again.

Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education may have greater success in encouraging the 22 states that have caps on the number of charter schools allowed to operate to lift those caps. She could do so by implementing a grant program similar to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. This could substantially increase the number of charter schools across the country.

Since the ESSA limits the federal role in government, and since the Republicans in Congress have long advocated for state control of education, the future of education most likely lies with your statehouse.


Blog Author: Ashley Zahn
Ashley joined C2 Education in 2008. Since then, she has been instrumental in developing C2 Education’s unique line of curriculum materials, helped hundreds of students through C2 Education’s college admission essay help service, and shared her expertise in the fields of education and college admissions through the C2 Education blog.