A year into his presidency, neither Donald Trump nor his secretary of education Betsy DeVos has inflicted anything like the damage on K-12 education that many public school advocates feared based on his campaign pledges and public pronouncements.
The threat of a major expansion of school “choice” programs from the billionaire duo — in the form of government subsidies for private school tuition — has failed to materialize.
When he ran for president, Trump promised to “pursue” within his first 100 days what he called the School Choice and Education Opportunity Act. In Trump’s pre-election vision, the legislation would “redirect education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice.”
It would also “end the Common Core and bring education supervision to local communities, and expand vocational and technical education, and make two- and four-year college more affordable.”
No such act has materialized so far. Nor has his pledge to target $20 billion in federal funds on school “choice” programs for low-income children. Even though DeVos last week cryptically declared that “at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead,” the new standards in English language arts and math are still being implemented in California and dozens of other states.
California does have a comprehensive strategy of “local control,” with school districts having far more power over decision-making and use of state dollars than before. But that strategy was championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and enacted by the state Legislature in 2013, long before Trump even began running for president.
California has expanded vocational and technical education dramatically but that has happened completely independently of the Trump administration. The state has invested over $1.5 billion of state general funds into career technical education curricula, beginning before Trump took office. Gov. Brown has pushed community colleges to provide tuition-free community college education at least for the first year — again independently of the Trump administration.
Trump did propose in his budget for the current fiscal year $1.4 billion for loosely defined school “choice” programs, including diverting $1 billion from Title 1 funds intended for poor children. But his proposals went nowhere, even in the Republican-controlled Congress.
In fact, K-12 education has been hardly visible on the Trump administration’s policy roadmap, inasmuch as one has existed. DeVos has receded from prominence, despite being the best known secretary of education in recent history — becoming known not for her eloquence or defense of public education but for a series of missteps early in her tenure.
DeVos has become far more disciplined, and she has made fewer gaffes of the type that vaulted her to national prominence.
At the same time, Trump has failed to enact any of his grand education plans because not only was his budget not enacted, Congress has itself failed to pass a budget, instead operating on a series of “continuing resolutions,” which effectively continue spending at last year’s levels.
His plans have also failed to materialize because education is at its core a local enterprise, affirmed by Congress in the Every Student Succeeds Act enacted in 2015. The federal government can only do so much.
Arguably the most substantial threat to public education as we know it is contained in a provision of the tax cut bill approved by Congress last December. It allows parents to use up to $10,000 in funds in their 529 savings accounts for private K-12 school tuition. Until now, funds in 529 accounts could only be used for college expenses.
But this provision is unlikely to spur a major growth in enrollment in private schools, especially in California, and especially in the near term. That’s because using these funds in the short term will not result for most people in any significant tax savings. The only tax benefit in California is that earnings on contributions to the savings accounts are tax-free, but contributions themselves are not. Thirty-four other states and the District of Columbia allow family members to deduct contributions to 529 accounts from their state income taxes. California is not among them, so there is no major tax incentive for a Californian to use 529 savings to pay for private tuition.
It might encourage wealthier parents who already have substantial college savings account to withdraw funds to pay for private school tuition, but presumably many of these parents will already have enrolled their children in private schools if they had wished to do so.
The reality is that despite its image in some conservative circles that California is hostile to providing children with alternative choices to regular public schools, the numbers suggest otherwise. About 630,000 students are enrolled in charter schools in California. Approximately 500,000 are in private schools, and close to 200,000 are being home schooled. Some 5.6 million are in regular, non-charter schools, many of which also offer choices like magnet schools, small schools within schools, and other special programs.
Trends over the past 20 years suggest that the demand for private school placements is weakening rather than growing in California. Private school enrollments have dropped by over 20 percent from 9.9 percent of school-age enrollments in 1995-96 to 7.4 percent in 2015-16. It seems unlikely there will suddenly be a rush for Californians to put their children in private schools, especially because there are so many charter school alternatives that did not exist in the past.
Trump’s greatest impact on K-12 education may yet come via his appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. This year the court will consider the Janus vs. AFSCME case, which would make it more difficult for unions to levy dues on all individuals covered by union contracts. If Gorsuch were not on the court and a Clinton appointee had been, the lawsuit would likely have been rejected. But with Gorsuch’s help, it is now likely that the court will rule against the unions. That could severely wound the California Teachers Association’s clout in California, at the bargaining table and at the ballot box.