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The elephant in the room: Trump education policy

Future presidential policies for K12 likely to shift to more choice
Betsy DeVos, president-elect Trump's education secretary, has spent time as chairperson for both the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice.
Betsy DeVos, president-elect Trump's education secretary, has spent time as chairperson for both the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice.

As Donald Trump settles into office, a pachyderm-size question now looms for educators: What will U.S. education policy look like under his Republican-led administration?

On the campaign trail, Trump discussed eliminating the Common Core, scaling back the influence of the U.S. Department of Education, and supporting school choice with vouchers and an increase in charter and magnet schools.

His most significant proposal was a $20 billion federal program to provide an opportunity for low-income students to choose private or charter schools, which would include states contributing an additional $110 billion. Trump also pledged to give states more control over the distribution of federal education funding, although he did not describe how such goals would be achieved.

DeVos as education leader

Providing some insight into Trump’s education vision is the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary. DeVos, who has never served in public office or worked in a public school, is an education activist, having spent time as chairperson for both the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice. Both organizations promote school choice and privatization. And she advocates for education vouchers and private charter schools.

Although DeVos served on the board of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which supported Common Core standards, she took to Twitter shortly after Trump’s nomination to state: “Many of you are asking about Common Core. To clarify, I am not a supporter—period.”

A nod for more local control

Educators from Michigan, her home state, say that DeVos generally seems to favor a hands-off approach when it comes to the federal government’s involvement in education.

“Based upon DeVos’ statement in the Detroit Free Press last fall—‘We believe parents, not elected officials or bureaucrats, are in the best position to determine what is in the best interest of their own children’—we are hopeful that decision-making will return to the local level,” says Timothy Throne, superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, told DA. “Likewise, we expect U.S. education policy to follow this direction.”

With her husband, Dick, the former CEO of Amway, DeVos recently supported unsuccessful ballot initiatives that would have limited public oversight of charter schools in Michigan.

Superintendents in Michigan are very familiar with DeVos’ efforts to create educational options by expanding charter schools and vouchers, says Glenn Maleyko, superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools.

“Our fear, as educators who have actually spent time in the classroom as teachers, served as principals or worked as administrators in central office, is that public tax dollars will be drained from the schools that need it most and funneled to charter schools or a voucher program in an effort to give the illusion that these options will meet the educational needs of students,” he says.

Like prior education secretaries, DeVos’ ultimate impact on American education may be limited. Currently, the federal government funds less than 9 percent of the $600 billion the nation spends on K12 education, according to the U.S. DOE.

Most federal money is designated toward specific student groups, such as special needs or low-income populations. States and municipalities raise and allocate the majority of education funds.

Local control also extends to most general education policy, as states and districts still have the biggest say in their own organizational structure, school type and curriculum. As the DOE states: “Education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the United States.”

Reaction to the nomination

Support of DeVos:

“Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children. As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities.”

—Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the U.S. Senate education committee, via Twitter

“Her selection is a bold statement by the president-elect that he intends to follow through on his campaign promise to make educational choice a centerpiece of his determination to ensure that the children of our nation—all of them—will achieve the American dream.”

—Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform,via press release

“Betsy DeVos has the opportunity to continue our nation’s upward trajectory by working to ensure that students are given the opportunities they need to succeed academically, and that schools and institutions are responsible for the success of all students.”

—The Education Trust, via press release

“Throughout her career Mrs. DeVos has worked to empower parents and give families strong educational options, so they can do what is best for their child.”

—National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, via press release

“Betsy DeVos has a long and distinguished history championing the right of all parents to choose schools that best ensure their children’s success. Her allegiance is to families, particularly those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to an outdated public education model that has failed them from one generation to the next.”

—Gov. Jeb Bush, via statement

“Betsy DeVos is a smart, savvy, and passionate champion of educational improvement. I’d like to see an effort to reduce the burdens imposed by outdated and intrusive federal regulation, an attempt to unwind the ideologically fueled edicts handed down by the [education department’s] Office of Civil Rights, and to make it easier for states to use federal funds to expand educational choices for families.”

—Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, via email

“Trump is serious about doing something on school choice. She was one of the first people in ed reform to understand that we weren’t going to beat the teachers unions with op-eds and policy papers. She pushed the private school choice movement to invest in serious political giving much earlier than the mainstream reform groups did, and, so far, with far greater success.”

—Michael J. Petrillo, president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute, via statement

Opposition to DeVos:

“Her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions” to education.

—Lily Eskelsen García, NEA president, via statement

“[She] has ardently supported the unlimited, unregulated growth of charter schools in Michigan, elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools. She’s done this despite overwhelming evidence that proves that charters do no better at educating children than traditional public schools.”

—Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, via statement

“It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand feeding it to schoolchildren. DeVos’ agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model.”

—John Austin, president of Michigan’s education board, via Detroit Free Press

“The president-elect has chosen the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a cabinet-level Department of Education. DeVos has no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools. The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan.”

—Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, via statement

“By nominating a candidate with a proven record of hostility toward public education, Donald Trump is sending a troubling signal about his plans to privatize education from cradle to career, as well as scale back the Department of Education’s resources.”

—Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, via statement