With the Trump campaign unaccountably staying strong and afloat, plenty of folks are worrying about what a second Trump term would mean (spoiler alert: nothing good). But while analysts have to search through various supporters and Trump’s own word salad for clues to what he has in mind, a document from the far-right Heritage Foundation lays out in considerable detail a plan for not just Trump, but any conservative Republican moving into the White House in 2025.
Project 2025 has created a huge policy document, filling over 900 pages with detailed proposals. Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise was edited by Paul Dans, head of Heritage’s Presidential Transition Project, and Kevin D. Roberts, current Heritage Foundation president. This doorstop of a book details how to undo “the administrative state” at every level, and so devotes 44 pages to conservative plans for education.
The Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973 to push conservative business-friendly policies, and has developed into one of the most influential activist right-wing think tanks in DC. They are politically agile; they developed and promoted a health care proposal, then opposed it when it was adapted by the Obama administration as the Affordable Care Act. Their reaction to a Trump candidacy was to call him a “clown”, then once he was in office, they became a major voice in staffing; CNN said that “no other Washington institution has that kind of footprint in the transition.”
They have worked to push critical race theory bans, praised Florida’s dismantling of public education, and repeatedly argued for education funding to be voucherized. They even once tried to argue that school vouchers would increase the birth rate.
The education chapter was written by Lindsey Burke, chief of the Heritage Center’s Center for Education Policy. She’s also works at EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group formerly named after Milton Friedman, and she was part of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s transition team in 2021.
So what does she have planned for education under a new conservative Presidency?
Burke unloads the heart of Heritage’s plan for education in the second paragraph:
Elementary and secondary education policy should follow the path outlined by Milton Friedman in 1955, wherein education is publicly funded but education decisions are made by families.
Burke cites Friedman’s 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,” one of several places that Friedman laid out his ideas about how education should be delivered. Friedman’s idea was, simply, vouchers. The government would have no role except perhaps to certify a certain minimum level of quality among providers. Friedman was certain that the free market could fix everything (including racial issues—no need for mandated desegregation, because the free market would fix it). The government would hand over a stack of taxpayer dollars to parents who would then spend these at the vendor of their choosing (Friedman did not seem to anticipate the effects on a market in which private schools were picky about who they did or did not admit), be they non-profit, for-profit, religious, or secular.
So in broad introductory terms, Burke calls for federal spending on education to be turned to block-grants given to states without “strings” (aka “regulations”). Meanwhile, she calls for a big crackdown on the Higher Ed establishment “captured by woke ‘diversicrats’ and a de facto monopoly enforced by the federal accreditation cartel.”
A history lesson
Burke opens with her history of the department of education and its growth into “a single captive agency” that would allow so-called “special interest groups like the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the higher education lobby” to expand federal spending as Congress “continued to layer on dozens of new laws and programs” offered as “solutions” (her scare quotes).
Bolstered by an ever-growing cabal of special interests that thrive off federal largesse, the infrastructure that supports America’s costly federal intervention in education from early childhood through graduate school has entrenched itself.
She’s leading to the same idea that Heritage has pushed for decades—the Department of Education should be abolished.
Burke calls for the new administration to follow seven core principles.
– More “education freedom,” aka vouchers and a privatized system, including tax credit scholarships, which are a type of voucher that allows the wealthy to fund private schools in lieu of paying taxes.
– Choice for all “federal” children, meaning students in DC, military children, and members of sovereign tribes.
– State and local control, facilitated by turning all federal funds into unregulated block grants.
– Treating taxpayers like investors in federal college student aid. They should get ROI on those loans (and the loans should be repaid).
– Protect the loan portfolio from predatory politicians. Which means, I think, Democrats made us look bad on the whole loan repayment thing, so make sure that doesn’t happen again.
– Safeguard civil rights. Don’t get excited—the rest of the explanation says “based on a proper understanding of those laws, rejecting gender ideology and critical race theory.”
– Stop executive overreach. Enough of these. Don’t let agencies set policies, and no more of those executive orders.
So what do the specifics look like?
Chopping the department to next to nothing
Burke argues that “bureaucratic bloat” has metastasized down into state and local systems, with “convoluted funding formulas, competitive grant applications, reporting requirements, etc.” contributing to “suffocating red tape.” And while you’d be hard pressed to find someone working in education who would claim that bureaucracy isn’t an issue, the proposed solution is extreme:
The federal government should confine its involvement in education policy to that of a statistics-gathering agency that disseminates information to the states.
Burke goes on to detail how each of the programs currently handled by the department should be farmed out or eliminated.
Title I funding, which provides support for low-income districts, should just be handed over as state grants that are “no-strings-attached,” i.e. taxpayer-funded grants with no regulation or oversight. IDEA funding, created to help support students with special needs, should also be converted to unregulated block grants.
DC’s voucher program should be made universal, meaning that wealthy families whose children have never set foot in public schools may still get taxpayer dollars to fund their tuition choice. Burke does not address how universal voucher programs consistently become budget-busting programs that cost huge amounts of taxpayer dollars.
Concerned that all this unregulated spending might result in discriminatory use of taxpayer resources? Heritage would ax the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and let the Department of Justice, with no particular expertise in education and schools, handle issues.
Handling of student loans should be privatized, and treated like any other investment proposition.
Laws and rules to eliminate
Heritage helpfully includes a list of laws and regulations that must either be eliminated under a new Department of Education Reorganization Act, with all the details about how to “devolve” the agency, eliminating it as “a stand-alone Cabinet-level department.”
Tops on the list of rules to eliminate are the Biden administration rules for the federal Charter School Program (CSP). The program has been plagued with fraud and waste (by some estimates wasting one dollar in four out of the $4 billion spent), and last year the Biden administration added some rules to help reduce the amount of taxpayer money being tossed away. Heritage would like to see all of those rules eliminated.
Heritage also wants to eliminate all rules, regulations, and record-keeping that in any way recognizes trans students, so that the federal government will only recognize the gender a child was assigned at birth. Burke argues at one point that amending Title IX to include anything other than “biological sex recognized at birth” actually “puts girls and women in danger of physical harm.” They want to see the new administration declare “on its first day in office” that sex is a “fixed biological fact.”
Heritage would like the next administration to undo the Obama administration’s work on IDEA around equity, which required school districts to deal with the over-assignment of students of color to special ed programs.
New initiatives for 2025
Heritage is eternally angry at the teachers unions, and would like to blame them for school buildings closing during COVID, though non-union charter schools were as, or more likely to close during the pandemic. But Heritage has a new level of revenge in mind—rescind the NEA’s congressional charter, because the NEA is “a demonstrably radical special interest group that overwhelmingly supports left-of-center policies and policymakers.” Also, hold some hearings to find out “how much federal taxpayer money the NEA has used for radical causes favoring a single political party.” No sign that Heritage supports an inquiry into how much federal taxpayer money has been used to hold hearings for radical causes favoring a single political party.
Heritage also wants to pass national versions of the sorts of anti-critical race theory and don’t say gay laws that have cropped up in red states. Under the umbrella of a Parents’ Bill of Rights, Heritage suggests Congress consider “those passed in Georgia (2022), Florida (2021), Montana (2021), Wyoming (2017), Idaho (2015), Oklahoma (2014), Virginia (2013), and Arizona (2010)” for a national model. Clamp down on “radical gender ideology” with laws that forbid school employees using a name or pronoun for a student unless approved by parents, and even then, not if such a use would be contrary to the employee’s religious or moral convictions.
And all of that would be undergirded with a parental right of action—the power to sue a school that a parent believes has broken the rules.
The Heritage plan for DC gives a picture of what they’d like to see in a national voucher program, and that’s a universal voucher, with all students eligible, and with private schools free “to control their admissions,” in other words, reject any students they don’t want.
Burke suggests that choice can be expanded nationally by making federal funds “portable.” IDEA and Title I funding could become vouchers. Burke points out that parents of students with special needs sometimes run into trouble getting public schools to provide the free and appropriate education the law requires. What Burke does not explain is how those students would be better served in a system that has no such requirement at all and which, in fact, allows schools “to control their admissions” and thereby reject any students they suspect would be too difficult or expensive to serve.
Heritage also favors the Educational Choice for Children Act, a version of a tax credit scholarship voucher model (the same sort of thing proposed by Betsy DeVos) which allows donors to fund vouchers instead of paying taxes, thereby adding to the federal deficit.
Heritage would also like to give states the ability to opt out of any federal education program and instead take the money they would have gotten and spend it as they wish. Like many Heritage wish list items, this is an old standard, last seen as a proposal in the first days of DeVos’s tenure as secretary.
Chicken Littling the issues
Throughout the proposal, Burke rattles the same alarms.
Critical race theory and radical gender ideology are everywhere! Department of Defense schools are teaching this stuff! It’s everywhere!
Burke also plays that old standard, “We’ve spent all this money and test scores are still terrible, so we must have school choice!” The report includes panic talk about NAEP results. Only around one-third of eighth graders were proficient, she says, failing to mention that NAEP proficiency is equivalent to being an A student. And she offers plenty of scary graphs. It’s a lesson in how to use the Y axis. Here’s the Heritage graph:
Here’s the same data (eighth grade reading) in a somewhat more realistic graph
Part of the argument she makes for vouchers and charters is that they produce “improved outcomes.” But the reliable data on vouchers, as highlighted by Josh Cowen, who has studied vouchers for decades, is that vouchers produce worse outcomes. If tests are what you value as a measure, then vouchers fail. Nor has there been any conclusive evidence that charters produce consistently better results. A recent study that was touted as showing charter superiority turns out to be full of holes.
The Heritage future
In Project 2025, Heritage argues for a future in which teachers are gagged, the federal government provides no oversight or accountability for taxpayer dollars spent on education, and parents are handed a voucher and told to fend for themselves in an unregulated marketplace. That’s the plan they’ll push on a conservative President, should we elect one the next time around. Which means that those who believe in quality public education as a shared responsibility and promise to every American student should start working on Election Project 2024 to insure that Project 2025 never gathers anything but dust.