What a Trump Administration Might Mean for Education Policy—and K-12 Funders

Michelle rhee, possible trump education secretary

Michelle rhee, possible trump education secretary

A little over a month ago, I wrote about what a Hillary Clinton presidency could mean for reform-minded K-12 funders and their policy preferences. Since the events of November 8, I and other observers of the American education policy landscape have been pondering what K-12 policy will look like under a Donald Trump administration.

Education was almost completely ignored during the 2016 presidential campaign, both during the primaries and the general election. This was unfortunate, as the new administration will face a number of important education challenges — chief among them the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the rewrite of federal education law that replaces the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. ESSA leaves many of its predecessor’s accountability provisions intact, but differs in that it devolves many decision-making powers in other areas to states.

Trump’s few statements about education during the campaign were limited largely to favored Republican talking points about expanding school choice initiatives, getting rid of the Common Core, and downsizing the U.S. Department of Education. During a visit to a Cleveland charter school in September, Trump announced he wanted to use $20 billion in federal grants to expand school choice for children from low-income families.

A Trump administration can't abolish the Common Core State Standards on its own because, contrary to some perceptions, this is not a federal initiative, but a set of standards adopted by a majority of states across the country. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has championed the standards and, along with various others funders including the Hewlett Foundation and Helmsley Trust, have put considerable funding into their development and promotion. The Obama administration dangled federal funds as an incentive for states to adopt the Common Core, but the federal government cannot force states to drop the standards.

The future of the Department of Education, not to mention other education initiatives, will depend in large part on whom the president-elect chooses as education secretary. Two names most prominently mentioned in recent days are former District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and longtime education research scholar Williamson “Bill” Evers of the Hoover Institution in California.

Rhee met with Trump in New Jersey on November 19, suggesting she's very much in the running for the top education job. As head of the D.C. public schools, Rhee had an adversarial relationship with teachers unions, largely over her efforts to reform teacher tenure and her support of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. Since leaving D.C. Public Schools, Rhee founded the pro-reform group StudentsFirst, which merged with another reform organization, 50Can, earlier this year.

Rhee shares Trump’s support of charter schools, but supports the Common Core and has encouraged states to stick with the standards. A Rhee appointment as secretary of education could signal a willingness by Trump to step away from his previous stated opposition to the standards. It would certainly provide a high-level path of access into the Trump administration for reform funders, many of whom have supported Rhee's work for years, both in her public and nonprofit roles. 

Evers, meanwhile, is a staunch opponent of the Common Core. Now a member of Trump’s transition team, Evers has been a resident scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1988. He is a longtime libertarian activist, even supporting Libertarian Party causes. Evers was an assistant education secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development in 2007-2008 under then-President George W. Bush. He was also an education advisor in John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. In 2010, Evers was appointed to a California commission to evaluate the Common Core by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Trump’s support of charter schools and voucher programs would seem to bode well for pro-charter funders such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Walton has ambitious plans to expand the number of charter schools across the country, and Broad hopes to expand the presence of such schools in its Los Angeles base. However, that does not answer the question of how much influence these and other reform-minded funders would wield in a Trump administration, given Trump’s lack of ties to the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors and his own spotty record of philanthropic giving. Again, the choice of education secretary will be critical in this regard. 

What is clear is that with ESSA’s move to put more decision-making authority in the hands of states, the secretary of education — whether Rhee, Evers, or someone else — will not have the same influence that previous secretaries have had. For funders, this may signal a need to concentrate advocacy efforts in state capitals rather than in the nation’s capital. Stay tuned; interesting developments lie ahead.