Former President Donald Trump has released a collection of proposals for education policy in one of the first major policy rollouts of his presidential campaign. True to form, it isn’t an argument about how to improve the education system. It is instead an inflammatory call for expanding reactionary culture wars in our schooling system. It’s also a signal that Trump wants to out-MAGA his potential 2024 rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis when it comes to turning American education into a tool of white nationalist propaganda.
It doesn't view policy as a way to improve human flourishing, but as a vehicle to reshape American society around right-wing identity anxieties.
Trump’s proposals are a demand that the American education system should be transformed into an ultra right-wing indoctrination pipeline. In a video released Thursday, he calls for cutting off federal funding for schools and programs including “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto our children.” He pledges to direct the Justice Department to open “civil rights investigations into any school district that has engaged in race-based discrimination — that includes discrimination against Asian Americans,” a claim that appears to signal opposition to affirmative action policies usually associated with college education. Trump decries curricula that are “hostile to Judeo-Christian teachings” and promises to devote legal resources to unwinding secular norms. He says he’ll purge “the radical zealots and Marxists” who he says have “infiltrated” the Education Department. He prescribes restrictions on transgender student-athletes. And he wants to give special certifications to teachers who “embrace patriotic values.” This policy plan is meant to “save” American education from “radical left maniacs.”
Trump’s announcement bears all his signature characteristics as a politician. It’s designed to maximally pander to his base and provoke his opponents using cartoonish talking points. It’s impractical: It’s unclear how much of what he says would actually work, particularly given that most education funding comes primarily from state and local resources. And it doesn’t view policy as a way to improve human flourishing, but as a vehicle to reshape American society around right-wing identity anxieties.
Trump’s emphasis on education early in his White House campaign underscores how important the policy area has become in Republican politics, and how it’s likely to be a top-tier issue in the GOP presidential primaries. It can also be read as an attempt to get ahead of DeSantis in the primary race. Under DeSantis’ leadership, Florida has become the right’s premier testing ground for radical right-wing education policies, with programs that place speech codes on college professors, deny students the ability to learn about the historical reality of racism, restrict the offerings of classroom libraries, and encourage self-censorship based on homophobic fear-mongering. The Florida Department of Education also recently blocked an Advanced Placement course in African American studies in Florida high schools because it found it to be “woke indoctrination.” Now DeSantis might be considering how to one-up Trump.
Regardless of the odds of any piece of Trump’s vision coming to life, it’s likely to encourage Republican politicians at the state and local levels across the country to lean even more into their attempts to reshape the mainstream education system. And it’s going to give more life to the broader right-wing assault on the interests and welfare of teachers, who are perpetually in the crosshairs of the right. (Trump’s video also called for eliminating teacher tenure.)
Trump’s policy announcement is outlandish. But we’re now in a political moment where anybody who has a chance of gaining power should be taken seriously and literally. There's a grave message here that should't be ignored: The right doesn’t want to improve the education system; they want to weaponize it.