Tom On Point: The uncharted way forward

Thomas J. Gentzel

Disbelief. Hope. Fear. Uncertainty. The list of reactions to the 2016 election is about as long as the time required for the national news networks to declare Donald Trump the 45th President of the United States. As the hours went by and results came in, the nation reckoned itself to what is likely to be the most significant change in foreign and domestic policy in more than a generation. This is what has defined America throughout its history: periodic, often rancorous, recalibration of its future course. The process that produces it can be divisive, even ugly in tone, but it also is democracy in action.

Of course, such events rarely are self-contained; certifying a winner does not necessarily end debate over the issues that shaped the outcome. Passionate views are not easily extinguished, nor should they be because deciding the victor of a race—for president, governor, or mayor, for instance—is determining who shapes the agenda but not necessarily how matters will be resolved. That is where the crucible of the legislative and policymaking processes comes in. New leaders may identify the topics they believe must be attended to, and offer solutions for addressing them, yet they rarely have the ability on their own to control the outcome. Others in the Congress, state legislature, or city council must be persuaded, and their voices and votes taken into account as plans are considered.

And so it will be in the coming months and years. Relatively little actually was said about education, by any candidate, during the lengthy campaign. To be sure, position papers were presented, some comments were made, and at least a general sense of each candidate’s views could be divined, but the topic never became a focal point of debate. The American people were denied what should have been the perfect opportunity to learn what the contenders really think about issues affecting children and the future of the nation, and why.

Yet, we are not left entirely clueless. The new president on several occasions has described public education as a “broken system.” He also promised to promote parental choice as a response. The lack of details or data notwithstanding, the message was clear: The incoming administration will be pursuing a very different agenda. That was underscored by the secretary of education nominee, Betsy DeVos, who has a long track record of promoting the expansion of charter schools and tuition voucher programs.

Whether this will be a major, early policy initiative of the Trump administration, and how much political capital it is willing to spend in pursuing a vigorous choice agenda, remains to be seen. NSBA hopes to work with the new secretary in clawing back some of the excessive federal overreach in recent years and ensuring successful implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. We offer ourselves as the voice of local governance and community ownership of public schools. But, we also will be the first line of defense against any effort to divert federal education funding to private and religious schools, or to promote creation of charter schools not subject to authorization and oversight by school boards. We will push back against proposals that would undermine a public school system that serves nearly nine of every 10 students in America, or any plan that lacks accountability for the expenditure of tax dollars.

No type of alchemy can transform an issue that largely was overlooked during the campaign into a mandate for dramatic, even destructive, proposals to redirect the education of millions of students. Proponents of such change should be prepared for a vigorous debate. NSBA already is.

Tom Gentzel

Thomas J. Gentzel ( is executive director and CEO of NSBA. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA


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