Donald Trump has provided only scant details on his education agenda but the ideas he has pitched make one thing certain: the president-elect’s vision for American schools is very different from that of his predecessor.
Trump has said he would shrink the Department of Education — or demolish it altogether — and vowed to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice.” On the campaign trail he also called for an end to gun-free school zones, and for changes in the student loan system. His transition website, which devotes just two paragraphs to the subject, identifies a few other priorities including early childhood education and magnet and theme-based programs.
There is a limit to what the federal government and a president can do when it comes to public schools, since over 90 percent of the funding is supplied by state and local governments. But experts say decisions in Washington could have big impacts in South Florida and across the nation, with private and charter schools the biggest potential winners. Here are five top possibilities and some other less likely effects:
1. More for vouchers and charter schools
In September, Trump announced a $20 billion plan aimed at expanding charter and private school options for low-income students, but gave few details including exactly where the money would come from.
Trump has said existing federal funds would cover the costs, and experts say there are a variety of ways his administration could steer money toward school choice options. One possibility is a federal voucher program similar to the system Florida uses, which gives companies tax credits in exchange for donations that fund scholarships for low-income students who want to go to private schools. Chris Norwood, founder of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools, said the federal government could also require states to adopt voucher programs in order to receive certain federal funds.
Instead of giving federal funds supporting poor students to school districts, the government could also let families determine how they would use the funds, said Lindsey Burke, an education policy fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“If you’re in a state like Florida where you’re in the [voucher] program and able to attend school on scholarship, now you can access a micro savings account, not only to attend school in Florida, but also to purchase private curricula or hire that private tutor,” Burke said.
Trump’s support for school choice could also translate into greater autonomy for charter schools, said Ralph Arza, a former state legislator and the director of government relations for the Florida Charter School Alliance. That would require the federal government to pass a law recognizing charter schools as local education authorities, giving local school districts less oversight.
For states like Florida, which already has a voucher-like program and a robust charter school system, support for school choice in Washington, D.C., may not have as big an impact as it likely will in other states. Instead, the rest of the country could start looking more like Florida. The bottom line, said Norwood, is that “these issues of school choice are going to become more mainstream.”
2. Less for struggling schools?
While proponents of school choice are invigorated by the prospect of presidential support, teachers unions and other organizations are concerned that Trump’s administration will take money away from struggling public schools.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten believes Trump could bankroll his $20 billion school choice plan at the expense of Title I funds, which are federal dollars for low-income public schools, or from funding that helps low-income students pay for college, because those are the biggest pots of money.
“If he moves forward with that proposal it’s the decimation of public schools,” Weingarten said.
In an urban school district like Miami-Dade, a loss or a significant change in the distribution of Title I funding would have a huge impact on high-needs schools.
“It would be completely detrimental to us and we would be one of the hardest-hit counties because about 70 percent of our population qualifies for Title I,” United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats said.
But newly elected Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon said those fears are overblown, since the president could not get rid of Title I funding without broad support from Congress. He said what is more likely to change is the way Title I funds are disbursed.
Overall, said Gallon, the most important education decisions are the ones made at the state and local levels. “Obviously the president has somewhat of a pulpit to be able to articulate positions, but that does not change the fact that the state is the primary legal conduit for public education,” he said.
3. Uncertainty for immigrant students
Florida is home to some 50,000 so-called “dreamers,” young people who immigrated to the United States as children and were given temporary immigration relief — which enabled many to attend college — thanks to executive action by President Barack Obama.
That is likely to change under Trump, who made a tough-on-immigration stance one of the cornerstones of his campaign.
“The president can determine who is at the front of the line for deportation and who is at the back of the line,” said Cheryl Little, the executive director of the Miami-based advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice. “[Dreamers] could well lose the opportunity to obtain a work permit and attend college or join the military if the president-elect keeps his promise.”
For younger children, who are either undocumented immigrants or the children of undocumented immigrants, Trump’s victory has caused a lot of anxiety, said Mari Corugedo, a local director for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“There’s so much uncertainty and many of our children are scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” she said. “When you have fear and you don’t have peace, you know that education is going to come last because what you’re worried about is your safety.”
4. More local control
Experts say it is unlikely Trump will scrap the Department of Education, but either way states are likely to see less federal oversight.
After what some saw as federal overreach under the controversial No Child Left Behind policies, there has been a push in recent years to return control to state and local authorities. A sweeping bipartisan education law signed in December, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was supposed to put more control in the hands of local and state governments, but critics say the Department of Education’s regulations are undermining that intent.
“Going back to the origins of our nation, public education is primarily a state and local responsibility,” said Lucy Gettman, chief advocacy officer at the National School Boards Association. “I would see this as an opportunity for the next administration to follow through on the promise of that legislation.”
Others, however, are concerned that a shrunken Department of Education would undermine the government’s ability to implement ESSA.
If there is a Department of Education in Trump’s administration, Politico has speculated that Ben Carson might be tapped to lead it. The surgeon and former presidential contender, who ran against Trump in the Republican primaries, is a big fan of school choice. In a 2015 interview, he told education news site The 74: “We know that the very best education is home school. The next is private school, the next is charter schools, and the last is public schools.”
5. Fewer restrictions on for-profit colleges
South Florida is home to dozens of for-profit colleges. Some of them have been sanctioned or closed down under the Obama administration for allegedly exploiting students with predatory loan practices and programs offering unaccredited degrees. That crackdown is unlikely to continue under Trump’s administration, not least of all because Trump has ties to a for-profit training program currently mired in lawsuits.
“For-profit college stocks soared as soon as it was clear he was going to be elected,” said Scott Sargrad, an education policy expert at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. “I think that’s a dangerous thing for students. The Obama administration has done a good job of trying to protect students from predatory for-profit colleges.”
6. Guns on campus and other questions
At this point, there are still more question marks than certainties about what education will look like under Trump’s administration.
One big question mark is in the area of gun control. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to get rid of “gun-free zones” in schools, although he later back-pedaled. A federal law called the Gun-Free School Zones Act bars individuals without a concealed carry permit from carrying firearms on school grounds or within 1,000 feet of the school. But repealing the law wouldn’t make much difference in Florida, where people with permits are already allowed to carry weapons in school zones, said Gary Kleck, a gun policy expert and professor emeritus at Florida State University.
Another question mark is in the area of student loans. Trump and his surrogates have called for the privatization of student loans as well as a new income-based student loan repayment plan.
At the end of the day, Americans will have to wait and see what happens. “We bought something and we really don’t know what we bought,” said Norwood of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools.