Journalists, Experts Unimpressed By Trump’s Education Plan

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump recently delivered an education-focused speech in Cleveland, OH, coupled with the release of what his campaign calls “new school choice policies.” As they have with Trump’s limited previous statements on education, education reporters and experts are pointing out that his proposals lack specifics, don’t reflect political realities, and show a lack of understanding about the federal government’s role in creating education policy. 

Donald Trump Revealed New Proposals For “School Choice Policies”

Trump Called For “School Choice” At A Cleveland Charter School On September 8. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visited the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy (CASSA), a public charter school on the east side of Cleveland, OH, on the afternoon of September 8. He gave a speech about his campaign’s education policies, calling for greater federal funding to allow students to exercise “school choice” and expressing support for merit pay for teachers. As reported by The Washington Post:

The Republican presidential nominee used his appearance at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy to announce that his first budget would redirect $20 billion in federal funding to create a state-run block grant that he said he hoped would help poor children in low-performing public schools to enroll at charter and private schools.

“I'm proposing a plan to provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America,” Trump said. [The Washington Post, 9/8/16]

Trump’s Campaign Released “New School Choice Policies” In Conjunction With The Event. Trump’s campaign released a statement to coincide with the event detailing what it calls “four proposals to increase school choice, which will lead to increased student performance.” The proposals include “an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice” to be distributed to individual states, portable school funding for “every American child living in poverty” to be used toward their choice of education at “the local public, private, charter, or magnet school that is best for them,” a vow to “use the pulpit of the presidency” to promote “school choice” policies, and “merit-pay for teachers” rather than “the failed tenure system that currently exists.” [DonaldJTrump.com, 9/8/16]

Education Writers And Experts Across The Ideological Spectrum Panned Trump’s Proposals

NY Times: Enacting Trump Proposals Would Be “A Heavy Lift.” The New York Times explained that the main education proposal Trump introduced -- a plan to restructure federal funding known as Title I portability, which allows more students to use funds to attend private schools and charter schools -- is a popular Republican policy proposal that has previously failed to garner congressional support. The Times reported that efforts to revive this policy would be “a heavy lift” in terms of legislative maneuvers, and a conservative education scholar suggested the proposal was merely “a symbolic gesture” from the Trump campaign aimed at “mainstream” Republicans. From the September 8 article:

Funding schools this way, known in education circles as portability, is popular with Republicans as a way to broaden school choice. More choice, reformers believe, introduces competition to the marketplace of schools and raises student learning.

Critics fear that portability, which Congress rejected in its latest overhaul of the nation’s chief education law last year, will bleed dollars from traditional public schools. Critics also oppose channeling taxpayer money to private religious schools and schools run for profit — like the charter Mr. Trump visited.

[...]

Enacting full portability would be a heavy lift if Mr. Trump wins the presidency. A years-in-the-making overhaul of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that passed last year rejected portability.

“I’m sure it was meant mostly as a symbolic gesture for charter schooling,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “These are easy ways for him to signal solidarity with mainstream Republican thought.” [The New York Times, 9/8/16]

Education Week: Policies Are Similar To Past Failed Proposals In Congress, Offer Few Details. Education Week also noted that some of Trump’s policy rhetoric sounded similar to recent proposals from Republicans that failed to garner support in Congress. Its report on the new proposals also quoted the leader of the right-leaning charter and voucher advocacy group Center for Education Reform, who expressed concern about how realistic the plan was:

Does Trump's school choice plan sound familiar? It's very similar to what the last GOP presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, proposed for K-12 in 2012.

And last year, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., introduced amendments to what became the Every Student Succeeds Act that would have allowed federal money to follow students to the school of their choice, public or private. Those amendments failed to get enough support to pass the House or Senate.

[...]

Jeanne Allen, the founder of the Center for Education Reform, which supports school choice, called the idea “pie in the sky” , given the current Washington political dynamic. “Congress typically doesn't write $20 million checks for programs without a real mandate,” she said.

But she also said the plan is very ambitious, and noted that Trump did not say the $20 billion for his school choice idea would have to come from the current U.S. Department of Education budget. “It's dramatically more money than any other candidate has talked about for school choice,” Allen said. [Education Week, 9/8/16; Media Matters, 4/27/16]

AEI’s Rick Hess In Education Week: Trump’s Speech Was “Mostly Performance Art” And Underscores Trump’s “Lack Of Thoughtfulness Or A Meaningful Policy Operation.” Rick Hess, education policy director at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Education Week that Trump’s proposals -- although mimicking mainstream school choice rhetoric -- were “performance art.” Hess argued that “it’s hard to have any… confidence” that Trump could follow through with the policies he outlined or that he could understand the specifics of what he proposed. From Hess’ opinion piece:

Yesterday, at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, Donald Trump delivered a speech about his education vision. As I've repeatedly noted, there's no point in putting a lot of stock in his speeches and utterances. Trump says stuff. It's mostly performance art.

[...]

Watching Trump talk policy is a lot like watching someone enthusiastically try to sell you insurance in a second tongue. He's for school choice, big time. He shows it enthusiastically, slobberingly even, by proposing . . . $20 billion in new federal spending for choice. It's a big gesture, it's grand, it's symbolic—hey, it's like Trump Tower. All those details and policy particulars that you usually find in a white paper on the website? For him, not so much.

A speech like this is where Trump's lack of thoughtfulness or a meaningful policy operation really comes into play. If a Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, or John Kasich gave this speech, I'd have some confidence that they'd thought about what this would really look like. With Trump, it's hard to have any such confidence. Trump has no record on this question. He gave no indication where the $20 billion in “existing federal dollars” will come from. It sounds like Trump's proposing a block grant to states so they could design their choice models as they wish (e.g. Sen. Lamar Alexander's proposal from last year), but I have zero confidence that Trump has thought much about it or is committed to the block grant approach. [Education Week, 9/9/16; Media Matters, 4/27/16]

The 74’s Carolyn Phenicie: “Characteristically, The Republican Contender Failed To Provide Many Details.” Former NBC and CNN reporter Campbell Brown’s education news and advocacy website -- which leans heavily in favor of “school choice” policies like those espoused by Trump -- reported that Trump’s plan “characteristically” lacked specifics and left many questions unanswered. Reporter Carolyn Phenicie wrote that when it comes to Trump’s education views, “The mystery is over -- sort of”:

The main section of the speech, his most substantive on education by far in the campaign, came a week after what his advisers had said would be “education week,” a calculated pivot that makes sense given his polling deficits with minority voters and some of the traditional GOP base.

Trump said he would “reprioritize” $20 billion in existing federal spending for school choice. While specifics would be left to each state, block grant funding would favor states that have charter schools and private school choice laws, he said, and money would follow students as they moved among public, private, charter, and magnet schools.

[...]

Characteristically, the Republican contender failed to provide many details, such as where in the federal budget he would find $20 billion to reprioritize or how he’d recommend that states move around those extra billions.

It’s possible that the sum might include what is currently the largest portion of federal K-12 spending, about $15 billion, distributed under Title I to support the education of low-income children. The other $5 billion is a mystery. [The 74, 9/8/16; Media Matters, 4/27/16]

ThinkProgress Education Reporter Casey Quinlan: “Trump’s Education Plan Will Hurt Low-Income Kids.” ThinkProgress’ Casey Quinlan pointed to research that shows Trump’s more recent plan to restructure federal education funding, and his often-discussed idea of eliminating the Department of Education, would leave fewer resources for low-income students:

School choice may sound positive on its face; after all, not many people would oppose the idea that families should be able to choose their school. But teachers unions say these vouchers only divert funds away from struggling public schools and toward schools that don’t properly serve disadvantaged students.

And data from states across the country shows that students who use vouchers don’t necessarily do better academically than students attending public schools. In Milwaukee, for example, students who used vouchers had test scores below those of students attending city public schools, Politico reported. New Orleans students who used vouchers didn’t progress faster academically. And, although the high school graduation rate increased among D.C. voucher students, they didn’t receive better test scores.

[...]

Under Trump’s education plan, the $2.3 billion Ohio receives in education funding from the federal government and $575 million that goes toward Title I funding for low-income students, could be in danger, according to data gathered by the Center for American Progress. As many as 9 million low-income students could lose $15 billion of Title I funding annually. [ThinkProgress, 9/9/16]

Education Experts Have Also Slammed Trump’s Previous Statements On Education

CAP Action Report: Trump’s Plan To Eliminate The Department Of Education Would Cut Nearly 500,000 Teacher Jobs. A September 1 report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund concluded that Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Department of Education -- a statement he’s made several times on the campaign trail, but one that was not included in his new education plan -- would lead to the loss of 490,000 educator jobs and would deny millions in education funding for low-income students:

But, according to new analysis from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Trump’s proposal could mean that more than 8 million low-income students—roughly the population of New York City—would lose millions of dollars for college.

Equally as troubling, Trump’s proposal also means that over 490,000 teacher positions could be eliminated—14 percent of K-12 public school teachers nationwide. This would have a terrible effect on the U.S. economy. The loss of that many jobs would be like UPS—one of the country’s largest employers, with over 350,000 American workers—going out of business. [Center for American Progress Action Fund, 9/1/16]

Wash. Post, AP, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, US News, and NY Times Have All Pointed Out Inaccuracies In Trump’s Statements On Education. A wide variety of outlets and publications have labeled as false or inaccurate Trump’s comments on education, which have mostly involved criticism of the Common Core state standards. In March, for example, The New York Times’ Upshot blog concluded that “Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand Common Core.” Reporters at The Washington Post have noted inaccuracies in his statements on learning standards at least five times since the start of his campaign. [Media Matters, 5/11/16]

Experts Have Expressed Fear And Concern Over Trump’s Education Policy Stances. Education Week has chronicled statements from a number of prominent bipartisan education experts expressing concerns about Trump’s lack of policy specifics and penchant for “pick[ing] up Republican talking points” without critically thinking through “what it would mean to take action” as president. Former advisers to former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former President George W. Bush were among the wide range of education professors and researchers to express concern and skepticism about Trump’s understanding of the federal role in education. From a May 9 Education Week article (emphasis added):

Marty West, a professor of education at Harvard University who advised Gov. Mitt Romney's Republican presidential bid in 2012 and has worked with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on K-12 issues, isn't about to sign onto the Trump train—and he doesn't know anyone else who is.

“The central challenge for any presidential candidate, especially on the Republican side, is to translate his or her vision into a policy agenda that respects the federal government's limited capacity to effect change,” West said. Trump has “picked up Republican talking points” including on school choice, “the influence of teachers' unions, the importance of local control, [but] he does not appear to have given any thought to what it would mean to take action on those issue from Washington.”

It's not all about Trump's edu-views, which West acknowledges are a “wild card” at this point. West has other problems with the candidate. “His behavior over the course of the campaign should disqualify him,” West said.

[...]

Andy Smarick, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, has a different take. He's happy to provide advice to any policymaker who wants it. But he has no idea at this point who Trump is listening to on K-12.

“In my adult life I've never seen a top-tier candidate be so light on policy,” Smarick said. “I've never seen a candidate so light on governing principles. I don't know if he believes in parental choice. I don't know if he believes in Title I portability. I've never been in a position of not knowing what the North Star of a major candidate is on education policy.” [Education Week, 5/9/16; Media Matters, 5/11/16]