AUGUSTA, Maine — President-elect Donald Trump has provided few details about his education policy goals but has made it clear that he intends to make changes in wide swaths that would have significant ramifications in Maine.
Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office includes just a few sentences about education policy, but it repeats some of his campaign promises: expand school choice for students, end the Common Core Education Standards, invest in vocational and technical education and make college more affordable.
Trump’s pick of billionaire Betsy DeVos as his education secretary blows a stiff wind behind those goals. DeVos has long been a strong supporter of a national voucher system that would allow families access to taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private, religious or charter schools.
A major fight looms between voucher advocates and those who fear such a system would dismantle the taxpayer-funded public school system. The outcome is by no means certain, but with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, the implementation of conservative, free-market education policy is as likely now as it has been in decades.
So what about Maine?
The incoming Trump administration has allies in Maine when it comes to allowing parents to tap public education budgets to send their children to private schools.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage and mostly Republicans in the Legislature enacted a law allowing the first charter schools in Maine in 2011. Under the provisions of the bill, those charter schools are considered public.
In his 2013 state budget proposal, LePage tried to create a voucher system that would have allowed low-income students access to taxpayer funds to go to whatever school they chose, including private ones. Later that year the governor proposed a bill titled An Act to Expand School Choice for Maine Students, which ultimately failed. It would have lifted the 10-school limit on the number of charter schools in Maine, which is a proposal likely to be aired again this year, and allowed public funding to flow to private religious schools.
LePage also spearheaded legislation passed in 2013 that made it easier for students to transfer from one public school system to another.
Jim Rier, a former education commissioner under LePage, said he expects proposals this year from both sides of the school choice equation. On one hand, he expects a bill to restore the authority over district-to-district transfers fully to superintendents. He also foresees an attempt to lift the cap on charter schools.
The Maine Charter School Commission has already approved nine of the 10 schools allowed under current law. But Rier said an attempt by Trump to legislate school choice from the federal level might be met coldly in the states, especially those such as Maine, which has spent much of the past six years negotiating with the Obama administration over the state’s right to exert more authority over education policy and oversight.
“A lot of people are not in favor of having the feds tell us what to do,” Rier said.
Trump has said he will propose the School Choice and Education Opportunity Act within his first 100 days. It would “redirect” $20 billion in current education spending to encourage school choice. Trump states on his website that states that let students use public school dollars to attend private schools would be given preference in the grant process, which would put Maine at a disadvantage unless it changes its school choice laws.
A change in Maine’s school choice laws will face staunch opposition from legislative Democrats, who control the Maine House and who just allied with the teachers union to campaign successfully for a referendum that imposes a surtax on income over $200,000 to funnel more state aid to public education.
The bulk of federal money that flows into Maine’s public schools is for low-income or special-needs students, and there is the potential for a Trump presidency to alter that.
Trump has made it clear that he intends to end the Common Core State Standards, which are guidelines for what K-12 students should know and be able to do in math and English language arts. More than 40 states have voluntarily adopted the standards, including Maine, which adopted the Common Core in 2011.
Maine has seen pushes against Common Core. A group called No Common Core Maine once tried unsuccessfully to put the issue to referendum, and in 2013 a panel began but never finished an assessment of the Common Core education standards in Maine.
It’s unclear what Trump could do to end the Common Core because it was a state-level initiative adopted by legislatures, though some have speculated he could change or eliminate incentives in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to disincentivize use of the Common Core.
What would that mean for Maine? The state has its own broader set of standards for eight content areas, known as the Maine Learning Results, which were implemented in 1997. The Common Core was incorporated into the Learning Results for the 2013-14 school year. Without the Common Core, the Maine Learning Results would still be in place.
Trump has a stated goal of making college and technical schools more affordable, which is an initiative that already is being spearheaded by LePage. Tuition across the University of Maine system has been frozen for six consecutive years, making Maine the only state in the nation to reduce its inflation-adjusted tuition during the past five years. While the cost of Maine’s public universities has remained flat, the national average cost of public higher education has increased 13 percent.
LePage has also chipped away at student debt by expanding Maine’s educational opportunity tax credit, offering interest-free loans to students and providing tax credits to employers who help employees pay off student loans. Anything Trump can do to supplement those initiatives would likely be welcomed by lawmakers from both parties.
Trump and DeVos will walk a fine line when it comes to establishing federal education policy that enhances the educational opportunities for all students while maintaining fiercely defended state-level control that has existed in the public education sector for decades. While some of their initiatives will make sense across political boundaries, others such as school choice will only fuel a bitter debate that has been ongoing for years.