Trump’s Big Government Takeover of Education

With 60 days left before the presidential election, Donald Trump finally released his plan for our nation’s schools. Quizzically, it consists entirely of federal mandates that would require throwing out the new law Congress passed last year to overhaul No Child Left Behind, which garnered wide bipartisan support (359 to 64 in the House and 85 to 12 in the Senate). In fact, if taken seriously, Trump’s proposals could give the federal government more power to override the wishes of states and local communities than anyone in the Bush or Obama Administrations ever considered in their wildest dreams. There are three major policies Trump promises he would implement from the top down, forcing every state, district, and school across the nation to comply.

1.     “End Common Core.”

The most extensive and oft-repeated education proposal coming from Donald Trump on the campaign trail has been his plan to “repeal” the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) because, as he says, “it’s a total disaster.”1 But the federal government plays no role in Common Core. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers led that effort to create a set of uniform math and reading standards as a way to ensure that every child graduates from high school college- and career-ready regardless of the state where they live or how many times they move during the course of their education.2 Today, 42 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted the Common Core State Standards because they want to ensure that children in their local schools are being held to a consistent and high standard of academic learning.3

Donald Trump says he “wouldn’t let it continue” if he were elected president. To actually accomplish that goal and force 42 states and DC to change their standards, Trump would have to convince Congress to repeal the education law it just passed last December—a law that more than 80% of both the House and the Senate supported. That law explicitly prohibits the federal government from meddling in a state’s ability to select educational standards, including the Common Core State Standards, which are explicitly mentioned by name as an area where the federal government has no business interfering.4 Those provisions were included almost by acclamation in the new law, as policymakers across the political spectrum think the choice of standards should be a state and local decision. Apparently, Trump is in the minority on this one.

2.    “Help Parents Send Their Kids to a Safe School of Their Choice.”

In addition to his edicts around Common Core, Donald Trump’s latest proposal focuses heavily on increasing “school choice.”5 Specifically, a press release on Trump’s website (which is the full extent of his current education plan) proposes to create a $20 billion grant program that would allow “every disadvantaged child to be able to choose the local public, private, charter, or magnet school that is best for them and their family.” In addition to the $20 billion he expects the federal government to allocate towards this mission, an amount equal to about a third of the budget of the Department of Education, he also expects states to pony up an additional $110 billion of their own funding—a brazen demand given that only 13 states have even been able to restore per-pupil spending to pre-recession levels.6 To put the scale of this mandate into perspective, the Obama Administration’s entire Race to the Top program, which incentivized states to make changes to their education systems and was maligned by many on the right as federal government overreach, cost the federal government a total of $4.35 billion.7 Trump plans to spend more than four and a half times more to induce states to broaden voucher and other school choice programs, and he expects those states to chip in 25 times more than the federal government spent on Race to the Top to carry out his plan.

Trump would not only be enforcing his will unilaterally on states through this proposal but also imposing a policy that was explicitly rejected by Congress just last year. The newly passed No Child Left Behind overhaul rejected these “let the money follow the kid” arguments because such policies divert limited resources away from the poorest schools and place them in more affluent ones, including directly transferring money out of the public school system and into wealthier private schools.8 So not only would this component of the Trump plan compel states to empty their education coffers according to his wishes, it would also override the considered judgement of a Republican-controlled Congress.

3.     “Institute Merit Pay and Get Rid of Tenure.”

Lastly, Donald Trump threw in a new, third component to the end of his education plan: to “support merit-pay for teachers, so that great teachers are rewarded instead of the failed tenure system that currently exists.”9 The specifics for how Mr. Trump would like to accomplish this goal are absent from this vague, one-line statement, but it is clear that any federal effort to move to merit pay systems and eliminate tenure would have to involve another major expansion of the federal government’s role in education. Teacher compensation and tenure policies are determined either at the district or state levels, and while some states have been moving to modernize their compensation structures in recent years, only two states in the nation have no teacher tenure laws whatsoever on the books.10 In addition, in order to implement a merit pay system, you must first be able to evaluate teacher performance in the classroom. But requiring states to implement a rigorous teacher evaluation system was also explicitly prohibited by Congress when it replaced No Child Left Behind last year.11

This means the only way Trump could force states to move to merit pay or abolish teacher tenure would be to pressure Congress to pass a new law allowing the federal government to dictate state and local teacher compensation policies, or to simply act in defiance of current law which bars the federal government from doing exactly that. This Trump edict could also require the federal government to step into local districts and renegotiate teacher contracts on a district-by-district basis—or simply pass a law to void those contracts entirely (which could arguably be unconstitutional). Either way, to carry out this plan, a Trump administration would need to significantly expand the reach of the federal government and ignore state and district decisions about how best to run their local schools. Those who complained about federal overreach under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama should gird their loins.


The Republican nominee wants to dictate from Washington that states massively overhaul their standards, vastly increase their spending, and upend their compensation and tenure systems. These are all decrees that Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have already wholeheartedly rejected. And implementing this massive federal takeover of education policy would be complicated even further if Trump truly “cuts the Department of Education”—a statement he has haphazardly thrown around on the campaign trail.”12 Despite Donald Trump’s claims that he would like to return education to the local level, there is nothing small-government about his current slate of policy proposals. In fact, if taken seriously, each of his three policy planks alone represents a broad expansion of the federal government’s power that would be the envy of any big government liberal.

End Notes