For Americans who want parents and local communities to be in charge of K–12 education, the presidential election yielded positive results.
The best news was the crack-up of Hillary Clinton’s longtime scheme to convert all of education into a seamless web of workforce preparation, enforced by nationalized standards. The systemic change pushed from on high was School-to-Work when the Clintons occupied the White House in the 1990s. It now exists as the Common Core standards that Clinton’s allies in rich foundations, big business and the Obama administration succeeded in pressing upon money-starved state boards of education without seeking the advice and consent of parents.
During his many campaign rallies, President-elect Donald Trump received hearty cheers when he vowed to get rid of Common Core. As a populist issue, it may not top controlling the borders and bringing industrial jobs back to the United States, but it is close.
Education policy wonks point out Common Core technically is not a federal mandate; hence, a president lacks authority to repeal it, short of issuing an extra-constitutional executive order of the sort President Barack Obama favored.
However, by writing (or rewriting) regulations for the omnibus education law Congress passed in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Trump administration could ease federal pressure on states to remain in lockstep with Common Core.
The congressional Republican leadership touted ESSA as a major break from No Child Left Behind, the prescriptive Bush-era law, in that it gives states and localities increased flexibility to shape their own school policies. However, ESSA still requires states to submit their “college- and career-ready” standards — boilerplate for Common Core — to the U.S. secretary of education.
President Obama’s education secretary for the final year of his presidency, John King, has signaled he will produce accountability regulations designed to keep states in line with Common Core standardization. As New York State’s education commissioner, King alienated many parents and educators with his hardline stance on imposing Common Core and linked assessments.
The key to Common Core repeal will be Trump’s resolve to appoint a new secretary of education committed to truly ending federal dictation and restoring local control. Much speculation has centered on retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, one of the original contenders in the GOP presidential primaries. But Dr. Carson might be a better fit in the Health and Human Services sphere.
Two members of Trump’s transition team for education—Gerard Robinson, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and former Florida education secretary, and Williamson Evers, a Hoover Institution scholar who served as an assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration—are experienced and capable advocates of community and parental empowerment.
Another intriguing possibility is former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, who supported Common Core upon its release by elitist bigwigs before reversing gears after listening to parents’ concerns. Besides then becoming one of the country’s sternest foes of nationalized education, Jindal also championed innovative school-choice programs in the Bayou State.
Parental choice was Trump’s most substantive education proposal in his presidential campaign. Advocacy of this cause from the White House could boost the morale of parents and others working hard at state and local levels for education savings accounts, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and/or public charter schools. However, Trump’s idea of converting $20 billion of existing federal aid into federal stipends or vouchers to help needy children choose better schools could have the perverse effect over time of increasing federal interference and restricting choice. The problem is federal controls inevitably follow federal money, and as a result, participating private schools could lose their independence.
A wiser approach would be to institute a plan for closing down the U.S. Department of Education altogether and letting parents and localities use the mega-billions in savings to make their own choices. Since its start in 1980 as Jimmy Carter’s payoff to the National Education Association for its support in his presidential campaign, the Department has harmed K–12 education far more than helping it improve.
Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.