Education insiders reflect on policy implications of Trump Administration

Last month the Brown Center on Education Policy released a series of memos on education topics directed to President Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Topics in this series included the teacher workforce, school finance policy, increasing performance with continuous improvement strategies, and early childhood education.

The culmination of the memos release was an event the Brown Center hosted on January 4.  The event focused on the theme of the federal government’s role in public schools moving forward under the incoming Trump administration. This post presents a summary of that event.

The federal role in public education: History and principles

After I kicked off the event, Doug Harris, a nonresident senior fellow in the Brown Center and one of the memos series co-chairs, led with a discussion of the federal government’s involvement in public schools. The co-chair group was comprised of four scholars from a diversity of experiences and political perspectives on education policy, and through a series of conversations they were successful in producing a report on the federal government’s role in education. Harris focused on the four principles, identified by the co-chairs, that should shape the federal government’s actions moving forward. Harris underscored that the unity of the authors regarding these principles is important given the current political climate.

Following Harris’s presentation, Associate Professor Marty West of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, another of the series co-chairs, moderated a panel discussion among Lindsay Fryer, Arne Duncan, and Gerard Robinson. Fryer is a vice president of the Penn Hill Group and previous senior education policy advisor to Senator Lamar Alexander, Duncan is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brown Center and served as the U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama, and Robinson is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is a former advisor to the Trump transition team.

The role of waivers

Waivers under No Child Left Behind were a controversial issue, as Harris stated they had come with “strings attached to them.”  These waivers provided relief from some of the law’s more onerous accountability-focused provisions by implementing education reforms aligned with Duncan’s strategies for improvement including college and career-ready standards and more rigorous teacher evaluation systems.

All three panelists agreed that waivers were initially appealing, while Fryer and Robinson point to their increasingly controversial nature over time because of the strict requirements that came along with them. On the other hand, Duncan defended the waiver policies he presided over as Secretary: “Until we make sure that every child in this country has access to a great education, we have to work with real urgency, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable, we have to move outside our comfort zones.”  He expressed regret not about the use of waivers to compel states to act, but in waiting so long to push the waivers amidst lack of congressional action to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

School choice and the $20 billion proposal

As both Trump and DeVos have championed school choice, speculation about Trump’s intentions for this topic defined a large part of the discussion. Both Fryer and Robinson concurred that the debate around school choice is often not as expansive as the Trump administration believes it will be. Fryer clarified: “it’s a broader discussion that includes magnet schools and charter schools and virtual schools and vouchers.”  Republicans in Congress also might not see school choice as something to fight for, according to Fryer.  She believes that the Trump Administration should not, and in all likelihood will not, force school choice onto states. 

Duncan, meanwhile, viewed the discussion on choice as “small ball” and instead urged DeVos and the Trump administration to set high goals for students with an emphasis on early childhood education and high school and college completion rates. He felt Trump’s proposed $20 billion for school choice would be well spent if it moved the needle on these important objectives, though he was unconvinced that school choice would achieve these ends.

In regards to where this $20 billion will come from, Fryer and Robinson had different thoughts, though neither was entirely clear on what the Trump administration intends.  Fryer mentioned the idea of a tax credit, perhaps in conjunction with Educational Savings Accounts. Robinson, on the other hand, suggested that the money is already being spent but could be reclaimed from other departments.  He stressed being creative: “There are ways of actually repurposing $20 billion within the existing amount of money that you have without raising any new money and possibly trying to address that.”

A new era of the federal role

As Inauguration Day is quickly approaching, all event participants acknowledged the value of some role of the federal government in education policy, and all pointed to unresolved issues the Trump Administration will have to address. As President-Elect Trump takes office next week (and Betsy DeVos, if confirmed, in the weeks that follow), the Brown Center hopes that they will listen to and consider the advice of the participating contributors to the memo series and the panelists in this event.

Full video of the event can be found at

Federal education policy under the Trump administration

Elizabeth Martin contributed to this post.