Trump must offer more than crowd-pleasing one-liners to improve public education
December 21, 2016
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As readers know well, I have been critical of the Obama Administration on many of its major education decisions.

It was especially troubling, after failing to secure a timely reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that the Administration exercised executive power in a very harmful manner, supposedly to “fix” the law. In effect, essential accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was badly weakened in return for states promising to adopt “reforms” that ultimately materialized on paper but seldom on the ground. Now, with no student achievement gains to show for it, and in the wake of a change of Presidents, the “reforms” will gradually but substantially vanish.

The recent election, of course, didn’t turn out well for the Democrats. Now we ponder where education policy is headed under President-elect Trump and his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.

Let me begin with some nice words.

For some reason, I like Donald Trump, certainly far more than do most of my peers. (Lord only knows, and I hope I’m right. But that’s all for another discussion.) In addition, I must say I am increasingly pro-choice in education, so I am impressed with the focus the new Administration is placing on choice.

With that, though, the nice words come to an end.

Let me state it simply. If Donald Trump were running education policy like he ran his successful businesses, he would never take the approach he is currently taking.

First, this talk of Common Core is utter nonsense. The feds haven’t promoted Common Core since the early Obama days, and now, they can’t, by law. However one feels about Common Core, what exactly is this “back to the locals” President saying he will do? Is he saying he’s going to demand that states and districts that choose to use the standards on their own should be prohibited from doing so? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Can you imagine the quite successful businessman, Donald Trump, acting in such a fashion in the management of his real estate entities?

Yet, the one area in which he and fellow Republicans have clearly eschewed a federal role is in demanding accountability for results from those who have been bestowed the largesse of federal borrowing, taxing, and spending.

Education policy now is little more than “we stopped doing this, and we will stop doing that” (which mostly means we’ll no longer hold local politicians and educrats accountable for their use of the billions of dollars the feds send their way).

I fail to see anything conservative or intelligent in the resulting policy. Now the feds are basically spending billions, leaving all the decisions to state and local bureaucrats, and no longer demanding student progress as the quid for the quo of the spending. And this will be the approach whether there are gains or not.

Would businessman Donald Trump act this way? Would he send tons of money to partner businesses with total control of how the dollars are spent and without any accountability for success? NO WAY.

Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s simply throwing out crowd-pleasing lines in education talk. They get applause. But, a a smart guy, Trump would never go this way, if he truly cared about the enterprise. And, as a person who seems to care a lot about economic growth, opportunity, and jobs, he should care about the details of education policy and insist upon, not merely wish for, its success.

This brings me back to the issue of parental choice. I’m for choice, and I’m glad he and his Secretary-to-be are, too. But is there to be any accountability to parents and taxpayers in the choice? And what happens in the policy if all or even most of the students and parents don’t get choice because choice opponents stall or minimize the degree to which choice occurs?

In other words, choice must be done right, and choice does not an entire policy make.

The real overall issue for Trump is whether he’s satisfied to relegate education policy to the typical sphere of ideology and political tummy tickling and back scratching. It would be more difficult to do the hard work to assure success. But, hard, smart work is the only true way to effect improvement for students. And it’s the only true way to effect improvement for the economy through a better-educated workforce.

The President-elect faced similar choices when he built his businesses. And, he knows: the easy, sloppy path didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. If he thinks through it deeply, he will understand. I hope he does. America will not be great under his watch if he doesn’t.


Sandy Kress is a former senior education adviser to President George W. Bush with respect to developing and passing the landmark No Child Left Behind legislation. This post was republished from his blog with his permission.

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