So… What Happens Now? Thoughts on What President Trump Means for Education

Something happened last night. I was already in bed, of course, but I could hear strange shouting downstairs. I couldn’t quite make it out, but it sounded like someone saying, “Wisconsin?! What?!” This morning I found my dad still awake, sitting in an arm chair with bleary eyes and a strange expression that I’m not sure I’ve seen on his face before. It was weird. It was really, really weird.

I am, of course, referring to Donald Trump’s utterly astonishing victory over Hillary Clinton in last night’s presidential election. He deserves a hearty congratulation for defying the political odds and, in the end, pulling off exactly the kind of map-changing, crushing victory he said he’d accomplish. Truthfully, I never thought I would write the words “President-elect Trump.” But here we are.

It’s going to take folks—myself included—a long time to figure out what exactly this shocking outcome means on a lot of fronts. For starters, we now know that nearly everything we thought we understood about American politics was wrong. Perhaps it was right at some point, and perhaps it will be right again. But right now, on November 9, 2016, it’s dead wrong. I’m not going to delve into an in-depth analysis of what happened last night. There will be plenty of other pundits doing that for the foreseeable future.

But I do want to accomplish two things while the election results are still fresh. First, I want to talk a little about what a President Trump means for education. Like many conversations about what happens next, this discussion will end with a big question mark. Second, I want to cover some important Colorado-specific results that could have deep impacts on education in our state. This is already going to be a long post, so we’ll have to save the state-level debrief for later this week.

On the Trump front, most of you know that I’ve expressed my skepticism about Trump’s nebulous suggestions on education. I continue to harbor serious concerns about his commitment to things he promised on the campaign trail. But like it or not, The Donald will be the 45th president of the United States. And until we have some real actions on which we can judge his leadership, the fairest thing to do is to take him at his word. For now, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and focus on what he’s said.

First and perhaps most importantly, we have the question of the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. I was very sad about Justice Antonin Scalia untimely departure from the mortal world, and his absence has already been sorely missed in one important education-related ruling that could have ended forced payments to teachers unions by non-union teachers. But the big question on everybody’s mind has been Blaine Amendments. More specifically, we’ve all been wondering whether the U.S. Supreme Court would take the Douglas County voucher case—and whether they would come down against the discriminatory amendments that are too often used as weapons by those who seek to lock hundreds of thousands of children in 38 states out of the educational opportunities they deserve.

If President-elect Trump holds to his word about appointing a U.S. Supreme Court justice in the mold of Antonin Scalia to the bench—a task made easier by the fact that the U.S Senate will remain narrowly Republican—we could very well see some real, critical change on the Blaine front. There’s a lot more to the conversation than that, obviously, but I think we have at least some reason to be hopeful when it comes to opening the doors of opportunity to every child in America.

Trump has also said that he would put $20 billion per year in federal money toward school choice initiatives nationwide. He has never really explained where he would get this money or exactly how it would be spent, though he has indicated that he’d like to see states contribute an additional $110 billion from their own education budgets in order to “provide $12,000 in school choice funds to every single K-12 student who today is living in poverty.” That works out to about $2 billion per state, which is no small sum.

It sounds to me like Trump is calling for some type of national voucher program, or possibly something that looks like the kind of Title I portability that was front and center during the early ESSA debates. I would, of course, be very interested in that conversation. But the president-elect hasn’t addressed a major question that I can’t seem to shake: Given the history of federal involvement in education, do we really want to open the door to federal involvement in school choice initiatives?

The answer to that question, and to the question of whether or not such a promise is feasible, will have to wait until we get more information.  But the fact that Trump is looking at a friendly legislative scenario makes it possible that his plan could become a reality should he make a serious effort to push it. That outcome assumes, of course, that he intends to keep his word and can find a way to work with the shattered Republican factions in Congress—and with Democrats, who will, given the way Congress functions and the narrow margin Republicans are working with in the Senate, likely still be vital to any successful political push on education. We shall see. You can bet I’ll have some opinions on this front if and when this dream comes to fruition.

Finally, what happens to the U.S. Department of Education? In short, I have absolutely no idea. Trump has stated that he “may cut” the department while he works to cut spending. In many ways, that could be a very good thing. We certainly don’t want to risk a return to an era of massive federal overreach, most recently exemplified by the Obama Administration’s weaponized No Child Left Behind waivers (which have, thanks to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, gone the way of the dinosaurs). And there are few things I’d like more than see Obama’s Office of Civil Rights transformed into something other than a meddling influence more interested in witch hunts like the ones in Louisiana and Wisconsin than in pushing for real solutions for underserved students.

As Colorado and states across the country work to create plans under ESSA, it would certainly be helpful to have a Department of Education that truly believes in allowing maximum latitude for states to determine their own educational destinies. Or at least a department that doesn’t practically rewrite the legislation in a way that worries both Congress and state leaders by restricting the flexibility ESSA was designed to create.

But—and I know some of you will likely attempt to inflict serious harm on me for saying this—not everything the U.S. Department of Education and its offshoots do is bad. For instance, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compiles extremely helpful student performance data through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NCES also collects and maintains education spending data that can help us make good decisions when it comes to education funding. My policy friend Ross Izard recently used both NAEP and NCES spending data to shed light on the complicated education funding debate in Colorado. The Department of Education also gathers data in a number of other important areas, and commissions and/or funds a lot of research that can be very helpful.

And, of course, there’s the matter of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding Colorado schools and districts gleefully take from the federal government each year. Many schools and districts now have budgets that are dependent on the continued flow of federal money, which is a major part of why we’ve found ourselves in our current predicament. I’d be very open to a discussion about how we could reduce this kind of financial dependence, but we should also be honest about the situation. It’s more than a little unrealistic to tell the feds to get out of our business while we continue to rely so deeply on federal money to make our education system work.

None of that is to say that we couldn’t or shouldn’t significantly scale back the department and limit its reach. Unquestionably, education should be the purview of the states. But Trump’s cutting should be done thoughtfully, and there are other interesting scenarios to consider. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, has been a strong advocate for choice in his home state of Indiana. Allowing the new vice president to help shape education policy could lead to some very interesting developments. Similarly, a strong pick for secretary of education that seriously redefines and redirects the department could lead to significant improvements.

All of this is conjecture at this point. I hate to say “wait and see,” but that’s all I can say at this point. The world is still trying to pick up its collective jaw after what happened last night. It’s going to take a long, long time to fully dissect the results and what they mean. Sadly, if history is any indication, education will likely not be one of the primary areas people focus on in the early months of the new presidency. But the conversations are coming, and it always pays to be prepared.

Enjoy your first day of freedom from campaign messaging. I’ll see you back here later this week!