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Vail Daily column: Trump’s education policy approach

This summer, I wrote a piece criticizing both major party candidates for the lack of detail on their positions related to Pre-K through grade 12 education policy. As the election draws near and more details emerge, it makes sense to review where both candidates stand. As Eagle County Schools' superintendent, I'm not able to take a position on either candidate, or anything else on the ballot for that matter. However, I am able to wade into the issues from my perspective and have a responsibility to inform our community.

Starting this week with Donald Trump and next week with Hillary Clinton, I'll outline the details of each of their respective plans when it comes to our national system for education and the country's schools. Trump's approach focuses on school choice, rolling back Washington's presence in education — except when it comes to school choice — and supports getting rid of Common Core State Standards.

School choice has become a central education policy for most Republicans, as well as many Democrats. The theory holds that the problem with education is a lack of competition among schools and the whole education sector needs to operate more like the business world.

The school choice theory holds that if we create more educational choices and parents select the best schools for their students, then the competition between schools will spur greater innovation, better customization to student needs, and the entire system will perform better.

In grading Trump’s plan, I have to give it low marks in terms of its originality or its potential to have a meaningful impact on student learning.

School choice can take on more than one form. The most common and least controversial is school choice between public schools, where parents can choose to send a student to a school outside of their traditional neighborhood boundary. Charter schools are another form of school choice where a school operates with greater flexibility and autonomy, but is still bound by a contract or charter with either the local public school district or the state. The most controversial school choice models are so-called voucher programs, which provide a way to move public dollars into private schools.

Trump's plan would strip away and reduce the size and regulatory power of the U.S. Department of Education and would provide states with block grants (large grants which give a lot of decision-making power to the grant recipient) for the purpose of expanding school choice options. Trump has suggested putting forth $20 billion for this purpose. This would be a massive amount of federal money put into education, nearly quadrupling the cost of Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative, which had previously been the largest single federal expenditure into education.

Trump has also called for eliminating the Common Core State Standards, a set of internationally benchmarked standards in English Language Arts and Math that were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Common Core is a frequent target of criticism by both the left and right. Trump sees it as an example of federal overreach and "education through Washington D.C."

Like many politicians, Trump seems to be confused regarding this issue. The Common Core was developed by the states and voluntarily adopted. The Obama administration did award preference to states that adopted them (or a similar set of standards) for later rounds of Race to the Top grants, but it was not a requirement and the standards were not an initiative of the federal government.

Shifting now to a critique of Trump's proposal, I have little faith that this combination of school choice and rolling back both the U.S. Department of Education and the Common Core will do much to improve our country's education system.

The best performing education systems have invested time, attention, and resources into improving and growing the capacity of their existing public schools. By contrast, school choice systems are designed to dismantle the system of public education and replace it with a more market-based approach. The problem with Trump's plan isn't necessarily with the quality of charter and private schools. Many of them are excellent, including the ones operating in our community. The issue is that large scale school choice systems don't seem to be able to move the needle when it comes to system-wide change, which should be the goal when you are talking about a nation-wide policy approach.

Regarding provisions to roll back Washington's influence, few would argue that we need more federal regulation in our schools. However, there is an important place for a federal role in education. Certainly, there have been examples of overreach, but without a federal presence in education it is likely we would still see blatant discriminatory or segregation practices in some states, and students with disabilities would still likely be relegated to an inferior and separate experience.

While the Common Core has its flaws and I have openly criticized the volume of standardized testing associated with it, the standards themselves are useful in defining high level and internationally benchmarked expectations with which we can align our lessons and resources. Removing them at this stage (with no clear plan on a replacement) would pitch schools into an anchorless chaos when it comes to expected student outcomes.

In grading Trump's plan, I have to give it low marks in terms of its originality or its potential to have a meaningful impact on student learning. Mostly, Trump's approach is ideological rather than empirical.

For any education policy to make a genuine impact, it must fundamentally change the learning experience of the student. It is not clear how these macro-level and ideological approaches Trump is advancing does that.

Next week, we'll look more closely at Clinton's policies and critique those as well.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.

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