How Trump's Altered the Landscape for Education Advocates

President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, addresses a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017.
President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, addresses a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017.
—Jim Lo Scalzo/AP
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Education advocates in Washington might not always be on the same page when it comes to policy, but there’s at least one thing the vast majority agree on: The Trump administration—buttressed by a Republican Congress—is unlike anything they’ve ever had to contend with before.

In particular, groups that lobby Congress and the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of public school educators, as well as those representing civil rights issues and advocating for education funding, say that they are fighting what feels like a multifront war against vouchers, dramatic budget cuts, and what some describe as a general antipathy toward public schools and disadvantaged children.

“Being an advocate for public education gives me job security,” joked Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “There’s plenty to engage on.”

Another was more blunt: “It really sucks,” the advocate said.

To be sure, the situation is different—even reversed—for groups that champion school choice and other policy approaches favored by the Trump administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Such groups often found themselves sidelined during President Barack Obama’s tenure.

But there’s a long list of issues that keep teachers’ unions, civil rights organizations, and similar advocates up at night.

On the fiscal front, there’s the Trump administration’s pitch to cut $9 billion, or 13 percent, from the Education Department’s roughly $70 billion budget, including slashing key programs that help pay for teacher-quality initiatives and after-school programs.

The health-care bill could squeeze up to $4 billion in funding that schools use to cover special education services.

And there are concerns that the Trump administration won’t continue to invest in rural broadband, which many educators worry could slow the progress the Obama administration made in boosting connectivity in remote rural districts.

Then there’s the administration’s big school choice push, about which there are few hard-and-fast details. The Trump administration has asked for $1 billion in new Title I funding to be directed to school choice in its budget request. And the spending plan also seeks increased funding for charter schools and resources for a private school initiative. But the specifics of those programs remain cloudy, frustrating advocates on both sides of this contentious issue.

Some organizations say they are struggling to preserve what they see as victories from the Obama years, including a larger role for the department in looking out for children’s civil rights and a focus on resource equity.

“The idea that we might be going backward is just deeply frustrating,” said Liz King, the director of education for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Level of Unpredictability

The mechanics of the job now are different, too. The political ranks at the Education Department are thin, since the White House has been slow to fill subcabinet positions. Some Washington organizations have started providing the kind of technical assistance to their members that the department used to provide, doing their best to answer questions about matters like implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Others say their communication with civil servants at the department has been markedly different—policy experts they’ve long worked with aren’t nearly as accessible or forthcoming.

What’s more, because President Trump doesn’t have a full team in place and doesn’t have a long record on K-12 issues, it’s tough for advocates to see around the corner when it comes to education policy and spending. That situation isn’t unique to education, said Mary Kusler, the senior director of the National Education Association’s Center for Advocacy.

“I would agree it’s hard [to be an advocate] because there is a level of unpredictability. That is not an education-only problem. It is a Washington, D.C., new-world-order problem,” she said. “It makes it impossible to plan for the long term.”

The choice of Betsy DeVos, a longtime school choice champion, as education secretary only makes life harder from the perspective of groups like the NEA that vehemently opposed her confirmation.

“For the first time, we have a secretary of education who has no background in public education” and who has a singular focus on school choice, Kusler said. “Every time she opens her mouth, she shows her lack of qualifications for this job.”

But Jeanne Allen, the CEO for the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy organization, sees DeVos’ appointment as something to celebrate.

“They’re singing a song that we’ve been singing for a long time,” she said of the secretary and her team.

That’s a far cry from the way Allen expected things would play out early in the fall, when nearly everyone in Washington was anticipating that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-candidate Trump’s Democratic rival, would be in the White House.

Allen said her organization was “prepared first and foremost to put most of our time and energy into state battles and efforts.”

Electoral Jolt

But Trump’s surprise win was a jolt of a different kind for many public school educators and organizations that represent them in the nation’s capital.

“We went from hearing from our members [that they were] positive and hopeful to this drastic shift of almost panic,” said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations for the National Association of School Psychologists. “Every proposal that seems to come out is almost like a bomb. You’re in constant damage control, which is frustrating.”

And advocates for public school educators say they’re worried that proposals that once looked unlikely to come to fruition—like a massive cut to teacher-quality funding—might actually make it across the legislative finish line.

It doesn’t help that the Education Department still hasn’t filled key positions. So far, Trump has nominated just one political appointee: Carlos Muniz, as general counsel. Other players in K-12 positions that require Senate sign-off—like Jason Botel, who is acting as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education—are temporary fill-ins. It’s unclear how long any of them will stick around in those roles.

Some education representatives are scratching their heads about whom to approach with policy proposals and questions.

“I think in many ways the administration is still getting its people in place,” said Jacki Ball, the director of government affairs for the National PTA. “We’re just not always sure who to go to. We’re trying to develop relationships with the people that are there,” including Botel, who spoke at a recent PTA conference. “That was a good opportunity to open the door.”

And one advocate said there have been changes in dealings with the department’s career employees, who stick around from one presidential administration to the next. “Any communication you have with federal employees now is difficult,” the advocate said. “They are really hesitant to communicate via email. They say things like, ‘It is so hostile over here.’ ... Everyone is walking on eggshells.”

Aides for GOP members in Congress are quick to tout lawmakers’ ties to Trump, but aren’t shy about criticizing DeVos, said Sasha Pudelski, the assistant director for policy and advocacy at AASA. “They’re attacking the administration via DeVos,” she said. (A similar dynamic prevailed among Democrats in Congress during Secretary Arne Duncan’s tenure in the Obama administration.)

There’s an upside: Those representing educator groups say their members are fired up and watching Washington closely. That means more are willing to write letters, sign petitions, call their members of Congress, or lobby in person.

“This is a really unique time, where people who would normally sit back and say it’s going to be fine feel a threat” to public education, the NEA’s Kusler said.

The boost in education community engagement isn’t without its challenges. Several advocates said they got a flood of calls from their organizations’ members about a bill introduced by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would create federally supported vouchers nationwide. That legislation is almost certain to go nowhere. But it can be tougher to get members riled up about proposals that may actually be able to get traction, including potential budget cuts.

Fielding questions about extreme, dead-on-arrival proposals cuts into advocates’ time and energy.

“We have to make sure there’s not burnout. We have to make sure that the level of attention is appropriate,” Pudelski said. “Every lobbyist I talk to feels like they’re running on empty a little bit.”

Common Cause

One thing that has helped lighten the load: Education advocacy organizations that work on behalf of public school educators and those representing disadvantaged students are working together much more closely, and on a much broader range of issues, than they have in the past.

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“Under Clinton, under Bush, and under Obama, the education community was afforded the luxury of disagreeing with one another,” said Ellerson Ng, the AASA official. “We can no longer afford to disagree, because we have such a basic task of supporting public education.”

Ultimately, though, nearly any major education initiative—from the president’s proposed budget cuts to any school choice proposal—will have to go through Congress. Even in a polarized climate on Capitol Hill, advocates say they’re still able to keep working with the same lawmakers and staffers they’ve relied on in the past.

“It’s ultimately up to Congress to pass the law,” Kusler said. “We’re still working predominantly with members on both sides of the aisle who support public education.”

Vol. 36, Issue 31, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: May 17, 2017, as Altered Landscape for Education Advocates Under Trump
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