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Trump’s Education Agenda, in 52 Seconds

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With Donald Trump now seen as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, after his strong victory in the Indiana primary, attention surely will grow to what he would actually do if elected.

If you want to know where Trump stands on education, you might think the first place to go would be his campaign website.

But don’t expect to find much information there. Education is not among the seven “positions” cited, which include “pay for the wall” with Mexico, healthcare reform, and 2nd Amendment rights. Under “issues,” education is one in a series of 20 videos on Trump’s campaign site and lasts all of 52 seconds.

“I’m a tremendous believer in education,” Trump begins, “but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education.”

The real estate mogul, who has never held elected office, then pivots in the video to the Common Core standards, adopted by most states (though some have since made changes). “Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue.”

Some analysts have noted a disconnect between Trump’s focus on local control and the desire to dismantle Common Core. After all, to do so would mean forcing states to undo their own standards.

As U.S. News & World Report journalist Lauren Camera recently explained, federal law prohibits the federal government from requiring particular standards, and the newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act features very explicit language to reinforce this. (The Obama administration created financial incentives for states to adopt the Common Core–which some saw as inappropriate pressure–but they were not required to do so.)

To date, the Trump campaign has issued no position papers on education.

Many analysts, education advocates, and journalists have struggled to understand what a Trump presidency would mean for education (and other issues, for that matter).

“He hasn’t spoken at great length about the topic at any one time, and he doesn’t have the kind of record on the issue that, say, a governor would,” writes Education Week reporter Andrew Ujifusa on the Politics K-12 blog. Also, “Trump has baffled education wonks,” Ujifusa notes.

However, Ujifusa helpfully supplies a few quotes and tidbits from the campaign, including a reminder that during a March debate, Trump hinted that he might name former surgeon and GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson to a key education post if elected. (Top education priorities in Carson’s campaign included school choice and local control of education.)

Harvard University Professor Martin West described Trump as a “wild card” on education during an Education Writers Association panel this week in Boston. Another panelist at the EWA National Seminar in Boston, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, has said much the same.

“[W]hat would a President Trump mean for education? I have no idea. And neither does anyone else,” he wrote on his blog earlier this year.

Andrew Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Bill Clinton and co-founder of Bellwether Education, made this point more broadly about Trump.

“We’ve never seen anybody practice politics like this,” he said during the EWA panel.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that in her many years in New York City (where Trump has long lived), she can recall no time when he got involved in a K-12 education issue, or even supported an individual school, suggesting it’s just not been an issue on his radar. (The AFT last fall endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president.) That said, Politics K-12 notes that Trump has previously donated money to Teach For America.

Leaving aside what Trump has said about education, his charged campaign rhetoric on other issues has drawn attention, and criticism, from some educators. Politico education journalist Caitlin Emma reported last month that a state teachers’ union president in Maryland protested his planned visit to a high school there. She argued that the GOP candidate’s “divisive fear-mongering rhetoric” has no place in Maryland’s public schools.

So, back to the 52-second video. Trump states, repeatedly, that the U.S. is “28 in the world” in education, and even suggests we are behind some “Third World” countries.

He does not cite any particular source for this information, or name the countries. But the 28 nations appears to be a reference to 2012 results from the global PISA exam in mathematics. The United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, scored behind 27 other industrialized countries in that round of testing. As for the Third World comparison, it’s not clear where that comes from.

Trump concludes the campaign video by saying: “We’re going to make education an absolute priority.” So, what does that mean? With no track record on the issue, the answer will only be known if American voters hand him the presidency in the general election.

For more resources, check out EWA’s Topics page on Education & the 2016 Elections.