November 10, 2016; Education Week Blogs

If Donald Trump delivers on his campaign promises, how will our public education system look when he leaves office? Looking at his promises, the public education system as we recognize it could end up transformed into a publicly funded, loosely regulated marketplace of independently managed for-profit and nonprofit schools.

There could be a sea change in how we fund our commitment to education—but not in how much we spend. For all students, rich and poor, his vision is that we already spend enough, and perhaps even too much. School choice would “free children from failing government schools and close the achievement gap. School choice is the civil rights issue of our time.”

As a candidate, President-elect Trump proposed moving about one-sixth of the more than $600 billion we currently spend on public K-12 schools to make school choice the core mechanism for public education and to build out the market system that it requires. The federal government will prime this pump with “an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice…by reprioritizing existing federal dollars.” The balance would come from by encouraging states to reallocate at least “$110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice.” To give them an incentive, the federal government will “favor states that have private school choice, magnet schools and charter laws, encouraging them to participate.”

How federal and state monies actually get to individual classrooms will also undergo a radical change. Rather than most school funding flowing through government channels to local school districts and individual schools, funds will “follow the student” directly to the school of their choice, public or private, secular or faith-based. School vouchers and other mechanisms that allow each child (or their parents or guardians) to make their educational purchase would be expanded.

The role of federal, state, and local education officials to ensure quality and equity will be replaced to a great extent by the invisible hand of a competitive market to reward quality and value and weed out underperforming schools. This downsizing or elimination of government oversight would begin at the U.S. Department of Education level; the president-elect wrote in his book Great Again that he’d like to “Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”

To translate these proposals into reality, President-elect Trump will need the support of the Republican Congress and 50 state governments. According to an analysis at Education Week, the Trump approach will have to take place during the implementation of the recently passed federal educational program and represents “a major curve ball for…the nearly year-old Every Student Succeeds Act.” Federal rules for the new law are only partially complete, and states are still working to bring their programs into compliance with federal law or to request waivers from some of the law’s requirements. The new Secretary of Education will need to be able to make fundamental changes to a system with many moving parts that can’t stop its work long enough to recalibrate. To avoid chaos, they will need both knowledge of the current system and patience—qualities that have seemed in short supply during the campaign.

The current law includes guidelines to keep things fair. For example, “the requirement that highly qualified teachers be distributed fairly between poor and less-poor schools, or that districts offer free tutoring to students in schools that weren’t making progress.” While efforts may be underway to rewrite the law in the direction that the new administration desires, will these requirements be enforced? Will similar requirements be included when the new system is proposed? If they are, but there is no DoE to enforce them, who will? Liz King, the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that advocates for historically disadvantaged kids fought for “guardrails” in ESSA, and want Trump’s administration to take them seriously.

Will those who guide the new administration’s work, translating the campaign into policy, be willing to look at whether or not this reliance on the free market is sound in practice? As Diane Ravitch has pointed out, “No high-performing nation in the world has charters and vouchers and for-profit schools and public tuition for home-schooling. […] The two nations that embraced privatization—Sweden and Chile—now regret it. They saw increased segregation, not better education.” Will these facts matter?

Nonprofit organizations whose work connects to public schools and K-12 education have much to be concerned about, and not much time to weigh in so their perspectives are heard.—Martin Levine