A little over a week ago, former president Donald Trump released a video outlining his plan to “save American public education, [and] restore power to American parents.”
The video, titled “President Trump’s Plan to Save American Education and Give Power Back to Parents,” outlines several proposals designed to rally conservatives who have long sought more control over public education. They include plans to withhold funding for states and districts that support Critical Race Theory and gender-related curriculum, protect religious freedom, and bar trans athletes from competing in sports. Trump also proposed revising Department of Education funding formulas to give preference to states and school districts that adopt a number of conservative education reforms, such as abolishing teacher tenure, cutting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, and implementing the direct election of school principals by parents.
These radical proposals face little chance of becoming policy. Even if Trump could secure reelection, he would soon discover that the federal government has minimal authority and oversight over American public education.
The primary roadblock these proposals would face is how education is structured in the United States; the federal government has no oversight over public school standards and practices. As it is not mentioned in the Constitution, education is the responsibility of state and local governments. School curriculum and standards are mandated and implemented at that level. The federal government has no say over the choices they elect to make, so long as they do not violate the Constitution. To be clear, under no authority can the federal government mandate education standards or practices in public school classrooms.
Federal influence over public education rests entirely on funding, through which the Department of Education uses grants to influence policies and practices. Trump’s threats to withhold funding for states and districts that offer instruction on CRT, gender ideology, and “other inappropriate racial, political, or sexual content” also fall flat, however, because the president has little control over federal funding for public education.
While the executive branch does propose a budget, it is Congress that controls the purse and allocates funds. Only Congress is able to stop the money from flowing through the DOE to local districts. Still, it would only do so in extreme cases of discrimination or violation of federal education law. To bring his policies to fruition and avoid lawsuits for withholding Congressionally approved funds, Trump would have to urge Congress to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This federal law dictates federal funding for education. Amending the ESEA is an unlikely political feat considering the nature of his proposals.
Even if Trump could sign legislation altering funding practices under the ESEA, the federal government only funds 6-10% of a public school’s budget. Like curriculum standards, funding for education is overwhelmingly the responsibility of state and local governments. While helpful, most districts rely on property tax and state funding formulas to balance their budgets.
If Trump successfully pushed for changes to federal education law, districts that chose not to comply with his policies could lose a small percentage of their funding. And because federal funds are primarily aimed at supporting the most disadvantaged students, attaching funding to those policies would hurt students who need federal support the most; those in poverty and with exceptional needs.
Because of the structure of the education system in the United States, Trump, if reelected, has little chance of delivering on any of his promises to “save American public education.” The federal government has never set curriculum standards or practices, they have no authority under the current law to do so, and legislation to amend funding practices under the Elementary or Secondary Education Act of 1965 is sure to fail in a divided Congress. Even if Trump managed to compel Congress to transform federal education law, there is no guarantee that districts would adopt such dangerous and divisive policies considering the small amount of funding they typically receive.
Those who fear these radical and dangerous reforms have little to worry about. Trump’s policy proposals have no historical or legal precedent as being under the federal government’s purview, and his threat to withhold funding has few teeth. The power to influence public education will remain where it always has, at the state and local levels.
Zachary Rose is a graduate student at Montclair State University, where he studies Educational Leadership. He has been a high school social studies teacher in New Jersey for the last three years. His professional interests include education policy, politics, and administration. Zachary can be found on Twitter @ZacharyLRose, or at his website, zacharyrose.com.