Trump & Education: 3 Things to Watch For
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Trump and Education: 3 Things to Watch For
By Niels V.

On November 8, the “who will be president?” guessing game came to a dramatic end, and a new, even less predictable guessing game began: what will Trump do as president, anyway?

This game is tricky because Trump isn’t a normal President-elect. He has no political track record to go off of, he has often shied away from going into detail on his proposed policies, and he has contradicted himself throughout the campaign. These traits have allowed the public to project both their greatest hopes and their worst fears onto a hypothetical Trump presidency.

It’s hard to say what exactly a federal government with Trump at the helm will look like, so there are a lot of different ways you can fill in the blanks. Trump is a wild card in every area of policy, and education is no exception. At various points during the campaign, Trump promised to eliminate the Department of Education and to implement a student debt plan that would forgive loans after 15 years.

Still, with Trump on November 23 announcing Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education pick, something like a coherent set of education priorities is starting to take form for Trump’s administration. Between Trump’s statements on the campaign trail, his policy proposals and his Cabinet appointments, here are some things to pay attention to when it comes to Trump and education.

  1. A Push for Vouchers

Donald Trump has had at times an uneasy relationship with the Republican establishment. However, Trump will need support from the Republican-controlled House and Senate to pass legislation, and in recent weeks it appears he has been looking to find common ground.

One way he’s done this is by putting school vouchers, a traditional Republican education reform priority, high on his education agenda. Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office, released before the election, says that a Trump administration will “redirect education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice.”

More recently, Trump announced long-time Republican donor Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education. DeVos has been a committed advocate of voucher programs, especially in her home state of Michigan, and her appointment signals Trump may be getting serious about implementing some kind of voucher system.

Trump’s 100-day plan gives an indication of where funding for such a system might come from – “redirected education dollars.” Where there’s a winner, there’s often a loser, and in this case the loser may be public education, which may experience funding cuts in order to allocate money for school-choice programs.

  1. Good News for For-Profit Schools, Bad News for Fans of Regulation

In the days following Trump’s election victory, publicly traded for-profit schools saw their share values jump. President Obama’s administration has made a concerted effort to crack down on for-profit colleges that have fallen on the wrong side of federal regulations – see, for example, Corinthian Colleges, whose misleading statements encouraged students to rack up federal student loan debt before the school declared bankruptcy in 2015. President-elect Trump’s approach, on the other hand, promises less regulation for the for-profit education sector.

Trump famously founded his own for-profit education company, Trump University, which was later forced to change its name to Trump Entrepreneur Initiative when the New York State Department of Education determined the company’s use of the term “university” to be unlawful. The company spawned a series of lawsuits, which Trump settled after the election for $25 million. While Trump Entrepreneur Initiative has now closed its doors, this episode suggests that a President Trump won’t be keen on continuing the Obama-era crackdown on for-profit education companies.

More generally, neither Trump’s history nor that of his pick for Secretary of Education suggests a Trump administration will put federal oversight and regulation high on the agenda. Quite the opposite, in fact –DeVors’s personal website emphasizes her support for “local control” while Trump’s transition website talks about the need for “relief from U.S. Department of Education regulations that inhibit innovation.”

  1. Questions for International Students and Those with Student Loan Debt

President-elect Trump does share at least one thing with his predecessors: he’s likely to backtrack on some of his campaign promises. Some of the education policies he campaigned on, like implementing school vouchers and scaling back federal oversight of education, seem like they could become realities given the Congress and Secretary of Education Trump will be working with. But other policies with implications for education have question marks over them.

For example, Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” could have serious implications for international students, and a Trump campaign co-chair clarified during the primaries that the ban would indeed apply to these students. However, Trump and his representatives have at times seemed to distance themselves from the proposed ban, so it remains to be seen what this campaign proposal will amount to in practice.

There’s a similar situation with Trump’s student loan plan. During the primaries, Trump proposed limiting student loan payments to 12.5 percent of borrowers’ incomes and forgiving student loan debt after 15 years of payments. But Trump never clarified how he would pay for the plan, which has been conspicuously absent from his more recent comments on higher education. Moreover, it’s far from clear that a Republican Congress could get behind such a proposal.

Higher education isn’t the only area where the implications of a Trump presidency are unclear. One topic Trump repeatedly brought up on the campaign trail was the Common Core set of standards. Spoiler alert: he’s not a fan. Trump’s 100-day plan pledges to “end Common Core and bring education to local communities.”

But Trump’s new pick for Secretary of Education has raised questions among Common Core opponents. While DeVos now says she’s “not a supporter” of Common Core, her history is more ambiguous – for instance, she serves on the board of a foundation created by Jeb Bush that supports Common Core. Even the conservative news site Breitbart seemed puzzled by Trump’s appointment of “pro-Common Core Betsy DeVos.”

At any rate, whether a Trump administration supports Common Core or not may not make much of a difference. Trump’s sweeping claims about “ending” Common Core sidestep the fact that Common Core standards are adopted on a state level, not a federal level, which is why some states use Common Core and some do not. Even if DeVos falls in line with Trump’s pledge to “repeal” Common Core, the decision will ultimately be left to the states.

These ambiguities that remain about student loan policy, the implications of a “Muslim ban” for international students, and Common Core highlight how much is still up in the air about what a Trump presidency means for the education system generally and higher education in particular. Trump hasn’t been sworn into office, of course, so it’s natural that some things remain unresolved, but given Trump’s lack of a political track record, this presidential transition is especially unpredictable.

Nevertheless, the information we do have suggests a Department of Education that is cooling to the idea of federal oversight and warming to that of school vouchers. With a Republican-dominated Congress and a major Republican donor as Secretary of Education, it may be that despite the volatility of this campaign season, the policies that make it off the campaign trail and into legislation are ones that have been on the Republican wish list for years, since well before the rise of Donald Trump.

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