Conservatives have been gratified by some of President Trump’s Cabinet choices but alarmed by others. Observers who remember the first Reagan administration may find parallels between the two presidents’ situations – Cabinet picks who went on to undermine the president’s agenda. Are the very establishment Republicans whom Trump ran against trying to out-maneuver him?
The most obvious area of similarity is education. Candidate Reagan promised to eliminate the recently created U.S. Department of Education (USED), but as it turned out, his selection of Terrel Bell as secretary of education effectively nullified that commitment.
Bell had once testified in support of the bill to establish USED. But upon his nomination Bell reversed course and professed to agree with Reagan that USED should be abolished. His subsequent tenure at the department, though, reflected his underlying desire to prevent, as one of his colleagues put it, the “right-wing ideological nuts” from prevailing on education policy.
Despite Reagan’s objections, Bell used his authority as secretary to appoint a commission to assess the federal role in education. The commission’s report (A Nation at Risk) concluded that the public school system was broken, and without a larger federal role in education, it couldn’t be “fixed.” Bell then drove a national campaign to publicize the findings and build support for USED. By this clever maneuvering he was able to save the department – and undercut his boss’s avowed intention to diminish or eliminate federal involvement in education. In fact, as one commentator observed, Bell “left [USED] . . . healthier and more resistant to White House meddling than it had been when he signed on.”
Will history repeat in the Trump administration? During the campaign Trump repeatedly promised to end the Common Core national standards and restore local control over education. He took every opportunity to ridicule Jeb Bush’s opposition to both these goals. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, currently claims to be “not a supporter” of Common Core – as Terrel Bell claimed to oppose USED. But, like Bell, DeVos has a history that belies her claim. According to Michigan education activists, she and her organizations there were influential in defeating attempts to free their state from the national standards.
DeVos is also closely aligned with Bush and his preferred policies (such as increased student data-collection and replacement of teacher-led instruction with digital training). Not only has DeVos donated generously to his foundation, but she has also served on its board. And it’s worth noting that at the GOP convention, DeVos cast her vote not for Trump but for Common Core-supporter John Kasich.
The individuals whom DeVos is reportedly considering for top staff positions not likely to toe the conservative line. Reportedly, the USED deputy secretary position may be awarded to Allan Hubbard, an Indiana businessman who generously supported individuals and organizations devoted to imposing Common Core. Hubbard serves on the board of directors of the strongly pro-Common Core Lumina Foundation and was a major donor to Common Core spokesman Tony Bennett (the Indiana state school superintendent whose enthusiasm for the national standards provoked his ouster by irate Hoosiers). Other pro-Common Core, pro-progressive-education heavyweights, such as New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera and former Louisiana Superintendent Paul Pastorek, have been mentioned as possibilities for top jobs. And the new senior White House education adviser, Jason Botel, gushed in a previous job at how “excited” he was about Common Core.
These are the people whom DeVos will count on to fulfill the president’s anti-Common Core, pro-local control agenda?
These developments suggest that Trump’s education agenda is headed for a quiet burial at the hands of political appointees, just as Reagan’s was. And unless the grassroots who relied on Trump’s education promises can make enough noise to get his attention, the golden opportunity he has to be their champion will disappear.
There is a further parallel between the Reagan and Trump dissident-appointee scenarios. The other Reagan Cabinet member who pursued a different agenda – to the point of threatening Reagan’s goals in other areas – was Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Haig finally resigned and was replaced by George Schultz, who by all accounts placed Reagan’s agenda – which led to the end of the Cold War — above his own.
Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, similarly raises alarm bells with many Americans. Tillerson has been described as a corporatist, comfortable in the swampy world of deals and unlikely to let principle get in the way. He’s also infamous to education activists as a Common Core bully, implicitly threatening the Pennsylvania governor if he allowed his state to replace the national standards. Tillerson succinctly expressed the utilitarian, workforce-development view of education when he described children as “defective products” of the education system if they couldn’t be immediately put to use by the system’s corporate “customers.”
While K-12 education wouldn’t be officially part of Tillerson’s portfolio as secretary of state, he could have significant influence on global education policy through the State Department’s work with the UN Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO). A man of this children-as-widgets mindset at the State Department could further undermine Trump’s education agenda.
Trump should also be wary of congressional sabotage. Establishment Republicans in Congress have dismissed grassroots warnings that Obama’s signature education bill— the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 — impedes Trump’s education agenda. They say the law has already restored local control in education – a laughable claim, easily debunked (see here and here) —and so will probably resist Trump’s agenda to legitimately return education policy to the states. Trump was elected precisely to confound these establishmentarians and to crush their predictable attempts to dupe him. The crowds who turned out for him, and gave him perhaps his biggest applause lines on this issue, desperately want a hero.
Does President Trump realize the threats to his education legacy that are being planted by his personnel choices and by congressional “frenemies”? The education agenda of President Reagan was doomed by adversaries within his own administration. Will Trump allow the same thing to happen to him? Who’s the alpha dog here? Jeb & Company? Congress? Or President Trump?