On the campaign trail, education often took a backseat to issues like trade and immigration for Donald Trump. He offered few concrete details about his plans, which were often vague and even at odds with what any president has the power to do.
Yet the tone of his campaign—and his rhetoric on issues ranging from minorities to climate change—has many educators and academics worried about the future of liberal arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. “Donald Trump has shown a contempt for science, a willingness to play fast and loose with the very idea of truth and an absence of intellectual curiosity,” says Laurence Tribe, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. “This leaves me with the sinking feeling that he will have a terribly destructive impact on the entire project of making excellent education broadly available.”
The President-elect’s clearest stance may be his support of school choice, the view that families—not the government—should decide where their children go to school and be allowed to use public education funds for public or private education. Opponents of school choice argue there is no evidence that it improves academic performance, and that it threatens the divide between church and state by channeling government funds into private religious schooling.
Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Republican philanthropist Betsy DeVos, is chairman for the American Federation for Children, a nonprofit organization that advocates for public funding to allow families to send their children to private and charter schools. “She has been heavily involved, if not the main architect of the educational system that is in place in Detroit, where charter schools are among the worst in the country,” says Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University. “Her general preference on these things is for as little government as possible.”
Vice President–elect Mike Pence has also championed the cause of school choice; as governor of Indiana, he oversaw a tenfold increase in the number of students receiving vouchers—public funds used to cover private school costs—over the past four years. Trump has pledged $20 billion in federal funds in support of school choice for families living in poverty; whether this money would come from U.S. Department of Education funds remains unclear. He will ask states to chip in another $110 billion, according to his Web site.
Much of Pres. Barack Obama’s work on education could be undone soon after he leaves office. He relied heavily on executive orders, legally binding directives that interpret existing laws related many issues, including education. “Obama’s legacy stands on clay feet,” says Jonathan Turley, professor of law at The George Washington University Law School. “It would be relatively easy to obliterate it.”
Trump has promised to use his executive powers to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by Pres. Obama.” If the President-elect follows through, Obama’s federal task force investigating sexual assault on university campuses—opposed by Turley and other law professors concerned about due process—could be dismantled. His order allowing transgendered students to use the bathroom of their choice in public schools—challenged by a federal court in Texas—might disappear. Department of Education inquiries into for-profit educational institutions—which led to the closure of ITT Technical Institute—could cease. Regulations that give the federal government a greater oversight over programs that prepare new teachers—issued only recently—will die.
But there are limits to presidential power. Trump said in an interview in 2015 that he might “cut” the U.S. Department of Education. Such a move would require Congress, and that body has consistently increased funding to the department since Pres. Jimmy Carter elevated it to cabinet-level status in 1979.
The new administration will also have no official say over what is taught in the classroom. Consider Trump’s oft-repeated pledge to “end” the Common Core, a set of standards for math and English developed by state leaders (not by the federal government, as is often believed). The U.S. Constitution does not grant the president—nor Congress—the ability to set education standards. Each state makes its own decision. Recent legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), further restricts the federal government from even trying to influence a state’s decision—as Obama did with his $4.35-billion Race to the Top Fund, which favored Common Core states when awarding federal grants. ESSA shields state adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards from federal meddling; released in 2013 by a coalition of states and scientific organizations, these research-based standards have so far been adopted by 17 states.
If the Trump administration has any influence on curricula, it could well be via the antiscience rhetoric of its inner circle. Pence has publicly supported the teaching of creationism. Myron Ebell, head of transitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and director of the Center of Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is a vocal climate change skeptic. So is Trump, who tweeted in 2012 “the concept of climate change was created by and for the Chinese.” (The Chinese have corrected him.)
Science education advocates warn the legitimization of such nonscientific views at the highest levels of government could trickle down to local policies. Education boards in several states, such as Louisiana and Texas, have already been battling over how evolution and climate change should be taught, as have state legislatures considering bills that would allow teachers to treat these subjects as controversial. Nearly all of this legislation has emerged in states that were won by Trump. “We see 10 to 12 of the bills every year, and their intent is clearly to give teachers cover to teach nonscience in science classrooms,” says Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). “None have passed recently, but there’s a danger that the people introducing these bills and school boards trying to change standards will be emboldened.” According to Reid, NCSE surveys suggest that many teachers avoid teaching evolution and climate change, concerned that parents will complain. She predicts community pressure around these issues will only increase.
Just as White House rhetoric could influence what is taught in classrooms, silence on STEM or other education issues like diversity could also have an impact, cautions Quincy Brown, program director for STEM Education Research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She highlighted Obama’s 2011 State of the Union call to train 100,000 new STEM teachers; the coalition of public, private and nonprofit organizations that formed in response, 100Kin10, reported that 30,000 new teachers have been trained to date. “These kinds of initiatives motivate the educational community,” Brown says. “If messages like that are not coming from the top, I wonder whether there will be a shift in priorities.”
Even Trump’s views on seemingly unrelated issues could affect STEM education. He has called for restrictions on H-1B visas, which allow companies in the U.S. to hire temporary workers from abroad for specialized positions that are hard to fill. But revenue from these visas, amounting to $1 billion, is the sole source of funding for a technical skills training program for domestic workers run by the U.S. Department of Labor as well as a STEM scholarship program for students that is administered by the National Science Foundation.
Amidst the uncertainty, some remain hopeful that the federal government will continue its support STEM education. Trump has said he will cap student loans, an issue popular with Democrats. And his plan for his first 100 days in office pledges support for vocational and technical schools. “This could be an area of overlap between Trump and Obama,” says Jon Miller, director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan. “They both embrace community colleges.”
Hoping to influence policy, a group of organizations representing science teachers has reached out to the new administration. “We have been in contact with the transition team,” says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “We have laid out a paper highlighting the importance of STEM education for the workforce priorities they have.”
Evans has yet to hear back from Trump’s team, which also did not reply to repeated interview requests from Scientific American.