What Is Trump’s Record on Education?

The outgoing president backed federal aid for Catholic schools hammered by the pandemic and reversed Obama’s school bathroom rules, but the long-term impact of his school-choice campaign is unclear.

Students attend morning prayers in the courtyard at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California, on Nov. 16, 2020, where pre-kindergarten to second-grade students in need of special services returned to the classroom for in-person instruction. The campus was the second Catholic school in Los Angeles County to receive a waiver approval to reopen as the coronavirus pandemic raged on.
Students attend morning prayers in the courtyard at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California, on Nov. 16, 2020, where pre-kindergarten to second-grade students in need of special services returned to the classroom for in-person instruction. The campus was the second Catholic school in Los Angeles County to receive a waiver approval to reopen as the coronavirus pandemic raged on. (photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Catholic schools closed for the Christmas holidays, offering teachers, administrators and pastors a reprieve from their heroic struggle to keep students in class and safe during the pandemic. 

But the yuletide season didn’t slow the Trump and GOP lawmakers’ campaign of support for private and religious schools battered by restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

After Congress voted on Dec. 22 to approve $82 billion for public and private K-12 schools, including reimbursements for pandemic-related expenditures at Catholic institutions, Trump followed up with a Dec. 28 executive order that directed states to “provide certain disadvantaged children with emergency K-12 scholarships to access in-person learning opportunities” at nongovernmental schools. 

With President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration days away, the executive order marks the White House’s final push to free up federal dollars for private-school tuition, and Tom Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Boston Archdiocese, welcomed the news.

“Thousands of students would seek entrance to Catholic schools if the funds were made available,” Carroll told the Register, noting that the archdiocese had experienced a net loss of more than 1,000 students withdrawn by families that could no longer cover tuition.

But Carroll also expressed caution regarding the practical impact of the order. 

“There are questions about how you do this in the timeframe available,” he said, referring to the challenge of tapping federal block grants during the final weeks of the Trump administration.

Carroll did not address Biden’s educational priorities. But Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have long opposed school vouchers, and they withheld help for religious schools in their own proposed legislation for a COVID-19 relief package. 

Public-school districts could “ignore the executive order,” since “Trump won’t be around to fight about it,” said Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington, D.C-based think tank. “It’s a safe bet that Biden will either ignore it or tear it up. If he just ignores it, some choice-friendly states will undoubtedly choose to go forward.”

Now, as experts weigh Trump’s legacy on education policy, the administration’s vocal support for religious schools struggling for survival has emerged as a key accomplishment for a president who campaigned on a school-reform platform. 

The question, say supporters and critics alike, is whether the White House not only provided rhetorical and departmental backing for school-reform initiatives and arguments, but also secured legislation that can survive the next administration.

The administration’s campaign for school choice “was more a matter of the bully pulpit than anything else,” Hess acknowledged. “But there was the commitment to enabling private schools to receive CARES Act funds, a supportive hand on the regulatory apparatus, and backing for charter school funding.”

Social conservatives are also worried about the longevity of the White House’s efforts to reverse controversial Obama-era policies, including one that increased transgender students’ access to bathrooms and sports teams and another that established tribunals for campus sexual-assault claims. 

Biden has vowed to reverse Trump’s education policies, and last month he announced that Miguel Cardona, education commissioner in Connecticut, would be his nominee for secretary of education. Experts contacted by the Register said they were unfamiliar with Cardona’s record. Biden has described the nominee as “a strong defender of public schools,” with a “proven track record as an innovative leader who will fight for all students and for a better, fairer, more successful education system.”

Back in 2016, Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education sparked furious pushback, as teachers’ unions, Democratic lawmakers and media outlets piled on, framing her as a rich, right-wing ideologue who endorsed for-profit colleges and charter schools. They also attacked her plan to sharply reduce the size of her department, viewed by many conservatives as a bloated, ineffective agency that has failed to lift student achievement.


Betsy DeVos’ Role

“We wanted to streamline the Department of Education, reduce funding for programs that weren’t working, and school choice was in the mix,” said Lance Izumi, director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, who served on the Trump transition team for education policy from September 2016 to January 2017.

Izumi told the Register that federal funds account for $1 out of every $10 spent on education at the state and local level, one reason why Washington does not play a more dominant role in the nation’s public system. At the same time, he was proud that Trump’s 2017 tax-cut bill introduced educational savings accounts for K-12 tuition, allowing families to “use up to $10,000 dollars a year for private K-12 tuition expenses.”

DeVos’ lack of experience in the public-school system, and her strong preference for alternatives to that system, led teachers’ unions to join with their allies on Capitol Hill in an attempt to block her Senate confirmation. The resulting 50-50 tie required Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote, but DeVos remained undeterred, constantly raising uncomfortable questions about the status quo.

“Half of lower-income fourth graders are below basic readers, according to the most recent Nation’s Report Card,” she said in a Dec. 17 National Review interview that reflected back on her stormy tenure as education secretary. And “worse yet, for the past quarter century, there has been no meaningful change in test scores, yet as taxpayers, we spend more and more for education each year.” 


Boosting School Choice

In Trump’s first bid for the presidency, he promised to increase federal funding of school-choice programs to $20 billion. 

But his administration only modestly boosted spending on these provisions, while failing to secure any substantive legislation.

In February 2019, DeVos announced plans for Education Freedom Scholarships, offering $5 billion in annual tax credits for those who donated to state-based scholarship programs. GOP lawmakers added the provision to a spending bill that was voted down, and subsequent school-choice programs were bumped from budget bills, as well.

Some critics have argued that DeVos’ lack of experience and unfiltered hostility for the public system turned off the moderate Democrats she needed to secure bipartisan support. But experts say she dramatically increased support for these programs, particularly during the pandemic.

Last spring she issued departmental guidance that directed local public-school districts to share pandemic-related federal aid with private schools, amid claims that she was using the crisis to advance stealth “voucher-like” policies

In fact, state governments had a fair amount of discretion for where they directed the funds allocated for education, and four states — Oklahoma, New Hampshire, Florida and South Carolina — used a portion of those dollars for private-school scholarships.

The second round of pandemic relief provides far less discretion for state educational spending, and only preexisting emergency voucher programs will be able to continue, an expert on federal education policy told the Register, while noting the funds that are available for home schooling and special-needs instruction.

Meanwhile, an entirely new cohort of parents entered private religious schools that were opened to in-person education this fall, while their public counterparts remained closed. That unexpected and unprecedented shift could strengthen public support for school choice, building on DeVos’ legacy, though experts say it is too soon to say how the pandemic will alter the U.S. education system. 

DeVos, for her part, sees promising signs of change.

“The concept of school choice is more popular across racial, ethnic and political lines than ever before,” she said in the National Review interview. “Consider the bold expansions in North Carolina, Florida, West Virginia, Tennessee and even in Illinois. Right here in D.C., participation in the school-choice program is now 50% higher than it was four years ago, and there is still massive unmet demand.”


Persisting Issues

The education secretary, who resigned Jan. 7, also waded directly into the culture wars. 

In February 2017 she pulled the Obama administration’s Title IX “Dear Colleague” letter, which directed public schools and universities to provide students who identified as transgender with access to the bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity, threatening to withhold federal funds if schools did not comply. 

DeVos rescinded that interpretation of Title IX, lifting the threat of financial penalties and giving states leeway to set their own policy on such matters. 

In subsequent guidance to field offices, she made clear that transgender students, like the rest of their classmates, could still file claims alleging discrimination, but it would not be under the framework of Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter.  

Biden is expected to quickly return to the Obama guidance. And following the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barring discrimination based on sex also applied to gender identity and sexual orientation, he will cite the landmark ruling to defend that shift.

But as DeVos completes her tenure, some Catholic analysts who supported her withdrawal of the “Dear Colleague” letter expressed frustration.

“Withdrawing the Title IX ‘Dear Colleague’ letter on gender identity was significant, but not enough,” Mary Hasson, a fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., told the Register.

“One of the problems has been that the left is controlling or generating all the information, explanations, definitions and studies related to sexual orientation and gender identity in the school setting. It was a missed opportunity not to engage more fully on those issues and bring forward factual evidence that disputes the gender identity/transgender narrative that currently dominates public education.”

However, Hasson is pleased with how DeVos handled another sensitive matter: Obama-era campus tribunals designed to adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct. Critics had argued that the guidance for the tribunals gave too much weight to the accuser and violated the right of the accused to due process.


Abuse Claims’ Handling

DeVos “took strong action to change the guidance on universities handling sexual-assault claims to create a more just forum, with due-process protections, for resolving those complaints,” said Hasson.

DeVos reversed an Obama rule that barred cross-examination of the accuser, while both parties would now have access to all evidence collected in the investigation. 

“The outgoing administration deserves credit for dealing with this,” John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, told the Register in a Jan. 4 interview. 

“Women have always been afraid to raise [a claim of sexual misconduct] for fear their reputations would be tarnished or they would not be believed, so I can understand the impulse behind” the Obama tribunal guidelines, said Garvey. But elements of this approach “run contrary to our criminal [justice] system, where the accused is given the benefit of the doubt. And the standard of proof has been an issue.” 

The new guidelines for handling sexual-misconduct claims, he said, also provided more flexibility for universities that faced a flood of such cases. 

Indeed, Garvey suggested that DeVos’ approach to this sensitive matter and others under her jurisdiction reflected a flexible approach and a respect for local responsibility, in keeping with her party’s own preferences for education policy.

Turning to the administration’s enthusiastic promotion of school choice, the CUA president told the Register that as a product of Catholic schools, he “applauded the efforts of the outgoing secretary to promote vouchers and charter schools.”

“They take a different view of the world than ordinary public schools do. They provide an alternative,” Garvey said. “It is a really good thing to have competition.”