Will Trump Give Education Reform the Kiss of Death?

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Eva Moskowitz.Photo: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s spokesperson Jason Miller has publicly floated the names of Michelle Rhee and Eva Moskowitz as potential secretaries of Education. Both Rhee and Moskowitz have carried out successful, if controversial, education reforms in large urban school districts. If Trump actually did allow them to influence his education policy, it would amount to a reversal of his stated policy. It would also, in all likelihood, devolve into a disaster for the cause of education reform.

Primary education is one of the few remaining issues that does not break down along clear left-right lines. The Obama administration used the federal Department of Education to advance dramatic reforms, prodding states to adopt evidence-based measures of success and allow more charter schools to experiment. Teachers unions revolted, eventually joining with congressional Republicans to block funding for low-income schools in order to prevent the department from influencing local control.

It is possible that the Trump administration would continue the de facto alliance it has cultivated with unions. Trump has denounced Common Core, a national set of standards that unions have increasingly attacked as well. At the same time, Trump has also called not only for more charter schools, but widespread use of private-school vouchers. Unlike charters, which are regulated by public entities and prohibited from selecting their students, vouchers allow private schools near-total autonomy without any mechanism that can shut down bad schools.

Trump has also called for eliminating the federal Department of Education altogether. At a candidate forum last month, his surrogate Carl Paladino raged at minorities and incorrectly claimed that the Obama administration and its former Education secretary Arne Duncan were in the pocket of teachers unions. (In fact, unions have fought bitterly with Duncan and demanded his resignation.)

On the other hand, given the not-very-deep level of Trump’s thinking on the issue, it is also possible that he will reverse himself completely in office. Both Rhee and Moskowitz have strong credentials as urban-school reformers. But both have pursued education in the center-left mode, which emphasizes strong central oversight, accountability, and mechanisms to evaluate and close failing schools of the charter or neighborhood variety. Their ideas are the opposite of Trump’s know-nothing approach.

Could they influence his administration from within? Perhaps. But the partnership is far less likely to stamp the imprint of education reform on Trump than it is to stamp the imprint of Trump on education reform.

The first problem is that serious education reform does not fit in with Trump’s overall domestic policy. He and his congressional allies endorse a combination of enormous tax cuts and a military buildup that would impose extremely tight constraints on domestic policy. The Republican domestic budget would force huge cuts in education spending – which is why Trump’s previous and possibly still extant commitment to eliminate the department is the one that follows logically from his overall domestic program.

The second problem is that education reform is waging a political battle largely among minority constituencies. Both Rhee and Moskowitz have yielded dramatic and even revolutionary improvements in education outcome for underprivileged urban children, establishing as proof of concept a model that can wipe out the achievement gap between students in high-poverty neighborhoods and affluent ones. It is one of the most promising achievements in American social reform in decades. Unions have fiercely and often viciously attacked their efforts, and despite the support of Barack Obama and his administration, frequently prevailed. (Voters in Massachusetts, whose urban charters are among the most successful in the country, defeated a referendum to allow more urban students to attend charters, with heavily minority neighborhoods voting no.) Associating the cause at the national level with America’s most famous racist would set it back irrevocably.

And this is all ignoring the strong prospect that Trump’s administration will dissolve into a shambolic nightmare that makes the Bush administration look competent and leaves all of its participants disgraced.

It is important in general that competent people work for the Trump administration — especially in national and domestic security, where failure could lead to a national tragedy, or even enable Trump to break down the rule of law. The champions of education reform would best serve their cause by steering clear.