Translating Trump

Trump and Education in America



It is interesting, and even a bit ironic, that in an election where much was made of the “education gap” between voters with college degrees and those without, the actual subject of education has been largely absent from the issues list. Trump has yet to make a single significant speech on education.

While speculation grows about shifts in education policy under a Trump administration, particularly with his nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, a quick look at the issues that resonated with Trump voters during the campaign may provide a roadmap:


It isn’t just urban schools that face overwhelming challenges in America. Many rural and low-income “middle America” schools are facing declining enrollment, a growing teacher gap, a lack of advanced college-prep curricula (such as AP, IB or CIE), and are struggling to meet increasingly complex needs of students because of declining funding.

Targeting these parents, Trump indicated a few priorities in his campaign and post-election comments:


  • It appears Trump’s top education priority is to offer complete school choice for every child living in poverty. Trump’s position is to make it possible for “every disadvantaged child to be able to choose the local public, private, charter or magnet school that is best for them and their family.”
  • Trump proposes this would happen through $20B in federal block grants, although the source of the funding has not yet been outlined. Trump has also called for matching $110B from states, the sum total of which would mean $12,000 vouchers for each eligible child, which Trump says is the average cost per student for elementary/secondary education in America. In this plan, the voucher would follow the child.
  • With a majority of state governors and legislatures led by the GOP, there is potentially less resistance than in the past to school choice-based policy at the state level. However, as some have observed, the shifting of Title 1 funding and other federal money is not a simple thing, and will likely face stiff opposition from established organizations and leaders in education who caution against the abandonment of those public schools that must serve the neediest children who are often left behind.


  • Trump’s other primary platform in education is a promise to roll back the effort toward national education standards. In doing so, Trump has tapped a middle American preference for state – rather than federal – leadership in education, calling the national Common Core standards a “disaster” and an attempt to impose federal will on state governance.
  • While the evolution of Common Core has been tumultuous, the states who participate in its development do so voluntarily. In fact, GOP changes to the latest Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESSA) make it prohibitively difficult for anyone but Congress to make changes at a state level. So a “repeal” of Common Core would be considerably more complicated than reversing an executive order. However, this is a top issue for DeVos, who has said of Common Core, “I am not a fan. Period.”
  • Just as many in middle America prefer education to be managed and implemented by the states, they also agree that America should have national standards to combat the national decline in student outcomes. Ironically, Trump’s opposition to Common Core may serve to galvanize its sometimes-lukewarm supporters.


  • A perennial topic accompanying the school choice movement, teacher merit pay appeals to those voters and families who are frustrated with what they perceive to be an entrenched bureaucracy that rewards tenure rather than excellence.
  • This has been less of a central topic in the campaign and transition, but it is the type of an issue that may appeal to the Trump administration because of the confluence of established labor and current populist sentiment.
  • The challenge with teacher merit pay is generally twofold: 1) developing a teacher performance evaluation that accurately defines and identifies “bad” teachers as opposed to good teachers who have had a challenging year or class, and 2) finding a way to reward good teachers with more pay in a typically tax-payer constrained budget, without cutting pay for everyone and relying on bonuses for some. Will taxpayers really fund an increase to some salaries on top of current budgets?


Trump has offered little insight on his position regarding higher education in America, with the exception of campaign statements with general commitments to making college affordable and accessible. The appointment of DeVos signals adherence to a traditional preference by presidents-elect to focus the leadership of the Department of Education on K12 policies and issues. Most higher education leaders are comfortable with this status-quo and wary of surprises.

Where might those surprises lie? A campaign speech in Ohio outlined a few potential policy priorities:

  • Income-based student loan repayment – suggesting student loan repayment be capped at 12.5 percent of income. However, recent reports of an unexpected and significant deficit in the Department of Education’s current income-based plan may impact Trump’s thinking on this topic.
  • Managing college costs by ensuring universities are using endowments “for students, rather than themselves.” These are more challenging waters for the Trump administration to navigate. Those knowledgeable about university governance point out the restricted nature of many endowed funds, and the fact that institutions with the largest endowments are consistently the most generous with aid.

Watch this space:

JOB SKILLS: Trump has called out the need for stronger career and vocational skills training, tapping into a growing national realization that America “doesn’t do vocational training anymore.” The shifting national focus on preparation for a career as a primary goal of a post-high school education may mean a new interest in Washington for re-imagining the mix of America’s post-secondary education priorities.

FOR-PROFIT EDUCATION: After the current administration that has aggressively moved to curtail the accreditation and funding of loans for for-profit institutions, some are speculating Trump’s past investments in the now-shuttered “Trump University” may point to a different perspective on the topic.

IMMIGRATION: Some higher education leaders have voiced concern over a possible suppression of global student enrollment in America’s colleges as a result of Trump’s well-publicized views on immigration. Global enrollment has been an increasingly important revenue stream for many colleges, and an extended global student hesitation may signal a shift of those students to other countries.

Julia Weede is an executive vice president and Education sector lead, based in the Edelman D.C. office.

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