Editor’s Note: In advance of Super Tuesday, this is part 4 of 5 in Education News’ series on the 2016 US Presidential candidates’ stances on education. The order of publication was determined by random drawing. Links to descriptions of each candidate’s education platform are included at the end of each piece.
Throughout his bid for the presidency, Donald J. Trump has been criticized by Republican party stalwarts and establishment personalities for serious divergences with conservative ideology. He has articulated his conservative stances on things like illegal immigration, military spending, and fighting ISIS more forcefully than most of his fellow competitors, but he has also advocated expanding social security, preserving some form of a national healthcare system, and dismantling free trade agreements. It is for these stances – along with his characteristic bombast – that most Republican officials have been so critical of Trump.
Trump is a populist who is a mixed bag of policy positions that do not neatly align with any ideology. His candidacy is more about attitude than it is agendas; he prefers a lack of specificity and political incorrectness more than he does five-point plans and wonky policy prescriptions. Aside from his stance on Common Core, Trump’s positions on education remain underdeveloped, and given the mercurial nature of his candidacy, his positions are susceptible to changes. If Trump becomes president, students and educators will likely have to wait and see how a Trump administration handles education.
Like on most issues, Trump speaks about America’s education system as being woefully inadequate and promises to restore its quality while reigning in costs and increasing access. The jury is out on how exactly Trump plans to accomplish those goals.
Mr. Trump has spoken more forcefully about Common Core than any other issue in education. Trump has referred to the federal standards as a “total disaster,” a “very bad thing,” and as a capitulation to “people in Washington” who don’t “give a damn about education.”
In his announcement speech, Trump criticized then-frontrunner Jeb Bush, who had voiced his support for Common Core after his governorship while promoting education reform. “Bush is totally in favor of Common Core. I don’t know how he can possibly get the nomination … How the hell can you vote for this guy? You just can’t do it. We have to end [Common Core – education has to be local.” In Trump’s view, Bush’s views on Common Core and illegal immigration disqualified him from running for president, and Bush has since dropped out of the race.
Like his competitors, Trump wants to decentralize federal control over education. He has suggested dismantling the Department of Education and has threatened to breakup teachers unions, which he accuses of monopolizing the education “market.” Trump thinks that introducing greater choice and competition among teachers would increase schools’ efficiency, make them leaner and better-positioned to serve their communities.
Yet Trump’s inspiration for these positions does not stem from the source that conservative policymakers might expect. The Trump campaign’s whole raison d’être is to empower the “little guy.” Trump’s popularity stems from ordinary people who feel disenfranchised and alienated from the current system. He sees Common Core, federal centralization, and powerful teachers’ unions as examples of an inefficient status quo making everything more difficult and complex for ordinary Americans. The same could be said for how Trump feels about immigration, trade, and healthcare.
In his campaign to “Make America Great Again,” Trump wants to revitalize education by giving control directly back to ordinary Americans; he wants them to feel like they once again have a say in matters of policy.
Much of what Trump had to say about education reform came in 2000 when he was flirting with a presidential bid as an Reform Party candidate. Though he withdrew from the race amidst bitter infighting between Independence Party (New York’s Reform Party affiliate) officials, Trump elucidated his thoughts on a wide range of topics, including education, throughout his brief campaign, which analysts agree was his first lark into politics. These earlier statements may indicate what kind of positions he holds today and what he might enact upon becoming president.
Trump’s dissatisfaction with the American education system is nothing new. “How long do we think the U.S. schools can survive that pretend to teach while our kids pretend to learn? How can a kid hope to build an American Dream when he hasn’t been taught to spell the word ‘dream?’” he wrote in one of his books, The America We Deserve. He has bemoaned the state of American education for a decade.
One of the ideas he proposed to improve American schools is to stop babying children. If educators were tougher with children, Trump posits, they might become more self-reliant, hardworking, and diligent. “The people running our public schools don’t want to damage a student’s self-esteem. They’re concerned about ‘empowerment.’ They’re worried kids will feel bad if they get a problem wrong or flunk a spelling test. It’s better to pat a kid on the head and praise his ‘creative spelling’ than point our that there is a traditional name for people with poor spelling skills. We call them illiterates.” Trump believes that students need to fail and be called failures to understand success.
Trump has also advocated for taking lessons on citizenship and vocational training much more seriously. “Public education was never meant to only teach the three R’s, history, and science. It was also meant to teach citizenship. At the lower levels, it should cover the basics, help students develop study habits, and prepare those who desire higher education for the tough road ahead.” Trump worries that as a result of a poor understanding of civics, Americans have lost a sense of what it means to be an American. Furthermore, he does not see the current model preparing students with the skills needed to succeed in the private sector in which he made his fortune and achieved meteoric success.
The specifics of his education plans remain unknown. However, what seems apparent is that Donald Trump wants an American education system that serves the interests of ordinary Americans foremost. He sees too much waste, too much red tape, and too much coddling in the current system; a Trump administration would likely work to increase school choice, downsize or eliminate the Department of Education, and change the culture in American schools.
Trump says that quality education is a “priority” in the campaign to “Make America Great Again” — but American educators and students will have to wait to learn how specifically Trump intends to rebuild the education system.
Other Candidates’ Education Platforms