Musings on the 2016 Presidential Election and Ramifications for Education

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

In what will arguably go down as the “longest” election in the history of the United States, it is worthy of a conversation about the future of federal education policy.

Why the longest? President Obama was inaugurated for the second time on January 21, 2013. One day later, the GOP started openly talking about their “upcoming stars,” including Senator Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan and began filing bills for electoral changes to make voting more difficult for voters on January 24th. Since then, the ramping up by the GOP has been non-stop. Rubio, Christie, and Cruz have been ever present for the past three-plus years, and then entered The Donald just to make it that much more interesting. And he has succeeded.

Over the past year, the GOP has held 11 debates with two more scheduled and have also held six forums. The Democrats have held 6 debates with two more scheduled. Fox, MSNBC, and CNN provide 24/7 political dialogue, most of which is completely inconsequential, irrelevant, and particularly annoying.

But one thing is for certain: on November 8, 2016, this, too, will end when the country picks the 45th President of the United States. Of course, the end of this election cycle serves only as the genesis of the next cycle. Politics is the gift that keeps on giving.

I can make a prediction what the outcome will be on November 8, but I’ll not go there. The stakes are high and the split is fairly even. The gap between the GOP and Democrats in 2012 was 3.9 percent. In 2008, that split was larger due to the Obama surge (7.2 percent). But in 2000 and 2004, the split was minuscule . What will it be this year? Who knows, but it will be historically close for a two-party system.

Percentage of Vote Electoral Votes





51.1 47.2 3.9 332 206



52.9 45.7 7.2 365 173 192
2004 48.3 50.7


251 286


2000 48.4 47.9 0.5 266 271


The overarching question remains: What happens to federal education policy if the next president is a Republican? Dare I say President Trump? Or what happens if Hillary Clinton becomes president (sorry Bernie, numbers aren’t looking good for you).

People put a lot of faith in the ability of the President to carve federal policy. The reality is, the President may have veto and executive order privileges to throw weight around, but Congress dictates policy. The current scramble in Congress to nominate and confirm a Supreme Court Justice is currently being held hostage by Senator McConnell. While I argue that it is unconstitutional for him and the GOP to do so, the Democrats argued something similar when Bush was in power. The point is that Congress rules, not the President. They all play the same game, and play it well. The reality is that, over the past several years, Congress has decided to do as little as possible. Because the Presidency and Congress are held by opposing political parties, the game has been about obstruction. Thus, whether a Republican or Democrat becomes POTUS 45 matters greatly.

Let’s say, for argument sake only, that Hillary Clinton is elected as the 45th President of the United States. What is likely to happen at the US Department of Education and federal policy? Not much, is my bet. If she does her job well, she will work with Paul Ryan to come up with some formula to make college (marginally) more affordable for students, knowing that their respective strategies will differ greatly. They can likely compromise on tinkering with federal financial aid and perhaps creating more incentives for cost control. Beyond that, not much in higher education. At the K12 level, her stance is to provide high-quality education in all zip codes, support students with disabilities, and provide new supports for teachers. Typical Democrat focus areas. The GOP-held Congress will push for more support of charters and the typical GOP fair, and that’s where Hillary may pull out her veto pen. Bottom line is that not much will happen and she won’t likely make much ground on her agenda.

If the GOP takes the Presidency, the potential for change looms large because they will control the White House, the Congress, and, well, The Supreme Court. The perfect political trifecta. Let us assume the Donald Trump becomes the next President of the United States. He has articulated, as he often does, arguments on both sides of an issue. He believes that there is too much student debt and he wants to look closely at colleges and financial aid. He would like the federal government to either get out of the loan business or reduce its role. As he said in his book, Crippled America (2015): “These student loans are probably one of the only things that the government shouldn’t make money from and yet it does.” He said that “We’re going to do something with regard to really smart financing.” We don’t know what this is, but it will arguably be “really” smart.

Trump is an advocate of school vouchers at the K12 level. “Who’s better off?,” Trump wrote in 2000. “The kids who use vouchers to go to the school of their choice, or the ones who choose to stay in public school? All of them. That’s the way it works in a competitive system.” If he holds to that aged statement, it would suggest that he prefers a split system to keep the marketplace competitive. Thus, pushing the voucher movement further.

On October 18, 2015, he said that he may cut the Department of Education completely, but many have said that and never been able to do it once they understand the negative ramifications. But he does believe in devolution from Washington: “I’m a tremendous believer in education, but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education.”

The question is whether a President Trump can work with the GOP-led Congress. Even if he runs under the Republican banner, he has made enough enemies that he could be a persona non grata on Capitol Hill. However, Trump does have a chameleon-like persona and will subsequently change a few tunes and work as necessary with the House and Senate. The other current nominees, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich, are more likely to have positive relationships with Congress, even though, as Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) stated last week: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” (This is what happens when you read Dr. Suess on the floor of the US Senate.)

So, we are stuck with observations of Hillary Clinton (sorry again, but Bernie won’t have the votes), Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, John Kasich (the dark horse), and Ted Cruz.

Or are we?

There is an outside chance that Michael Bloomberg, the 8th richest man in the US (Donald Trump is 324th) and former mayor of New York City, is playing with the idea of running as an independent. He’s been a Democrat; he’s been a Republican; now he’s an independent. Bloomberg had a very good run as two-time elected mayor of NYC. As mayor, his views were more Democrat than Republican, and he would have the ability to take votes from both sides of the aisle. Word on the street is that he will not run if Hillary is likely to win the nomination (most likely) as he would not want to take votes away from her. If Senator Sanders is edging to win, then he could enter the race.

If there was a President Bloomberg, it is more than likely that (a) he could be more successful than others working with Congress because of his ability and track record; and (b) he would likely buttress the US Department of Education and expand, not contract, its role. He is a staunch advocate of public education and would potentially extend the federal government’s oversight of schools and colleges.

All of this, of course, is speculative. I’m not suggesting which is better or worse. It just “is.” You will have to make your own decision on how you view the game. In the end, we may not know what will happen come November or what follows thereafter. But politics the game is in full swing, and we’re all rolling the dice.

Have a good weekend.

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