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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Trump, DeVos, and an Uncertain Road Ahead in Education

By Guest Blogger — December 19, 2016 5 min read
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Note: This week, Sara Dahill-Brown , assistant professor of political science at Wake Forest University, will be guest-blogging.

In the weeks since Donald Trump’s election, I find myself uncertain. I am trained as a political scientist, and with few exceptions, my colleagues and I underestimated the likelihood of Trump’s victory, by a significant margin, over many months. I should say that most of us recognized even in the primary that his early popularity signaled something important. Indeed, many members of my discipline have offered insightful comments regarding why Trump has been successful and what this elections means for American politics (here and here, for example).

However, the fact remains that the majority of us missed something. Ultimately, I believe this resulted from a focus on narrow indicators and a failure to think holistically or historically—a sentiment that may resonate with students of education policy.

Another source of uncertainty lies in President-elect Trump’s policy agenda. His proposals have been inconsistent, often unrealistic, and relatively scarce for a presidential candidate. While the announcement of Betsy DeVos as nominee for Secretary of Education indicates that school choice will be a priority, I see many question marks looming on the horizon about the ongoing implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the role that the U.S. Department of Education (USED) will play in the coming years.

I intend to talk this week about states and their schools, but like many others, I have been trying to reflect a little on how we arrived at this particular moment in the hopes that doing so might uncover lessons that will help anticipate what education reform and policy will look like in the coming years, and perhaps suggest how we ought to respond.

A starting point for me has been the passage of ESSA in 2015. On the one hand, ESSA is the gradually unfolding, hotly debated law of the land, and therefore important in its own right. As someone who grew up in the public schools of Utah, taught in the public schools of Texas, and has volunteered and observed in Wisconsin and North Carolina’s school systems, I think there is much to be gained by creating room for states to take a differentiated approach to school improvement. But as I have looked backwards, I also see parallels between the forces that shaped ESSA and the public resentments that Trump spoke to during his campaign.

Many folks who follow education policy understand ESSA’s devolution of power to the states and local districts as a repudiation of two, interrelated but distinct phenomena: the growth of federal power over education and ‘one-size-fits-all’ reforms. Specific grievances included the mismatches and confusion created by many of No Child Left Behind’s provisions; the prescriptive agenda of Race to the Top; the boldness of USED’s conditional waiver process under NCLB; and the feeling that the process of developing and adopting the Common Core State Standards was shaped by far-flung elites, and not communities.

These are, I would assert, legitimate gripes about the bluntness and exclusionary nature of top-down reform (which is not to condemn the specific policy instruments in RTTT or even the CCSS), like those expressed by Trump supporters who rightly pointed out that elected leaders have not been at all responsive to or engaged with the policy preferences of the poor, working, and middle-class public. One lesson moving forward ought to be that this process of reform is limited and provokes backlash.

And yet, beyond the smaller scale and more uneven pace that come with a state-centered, differentiated approach to education reform, there is another reason reformers have focused their energies on the federal government. Equity, specifically racial justice, has undeniably been a core value of the educational reform coalition, and the federal government’s track record on issues of equity has been stronger than that of many states. Since the 1960s, campaign promises to uphold states’ rights have often been used as coded appeals by candidates who found the political climate hostile to open expressions of racial animus but who, on the other hand, wanted to signal solidarity with the voters who still held such resentments.

Education reformers, advocates, and policymakers brought those commitments and anxieties to the table when negotiating ESSA, and so the law included provisions that aimed to maintain a focus on equity, while at the same time extending autonomy and flexibility. But when drafting the law, most imagined a future scenario at USED, in which the state and local advocates for historically marginalized children could still count on USED to apply a little extra pressure, to strengthen their bargaining position, intervene on occasion, or provide cover and support to local and state actors as they struggled to address divisive or complex problems—a safety of sorts, even if the agency were not so assertive as it has been under Obama.

States are currently in the process of negotiating the details of their implementation plans in preparation to submit them to USED for review next year, and at the same time, as of December 16th, the Southern Poverty Law Center has collected data on 1,094 anti-immigrant, Muslim, black, and LGBT incidents, 398 of which occurred in K-12 schools or universities (one is currently being investigated at the university, where I teach).

Much remains to be seen about DeVos’ specific priorities, but it appears that states’ ESSA plans will be delivered to an agency that, at best, is likely to define equity and its own mandate in narrow terms, as part of an administration that has maligned minority students and contributed to an environment where they are more likely to be verbally and physically assaulted in their places of learning.

To be effective in this newly reconfigured environment, I think reformers and advocates will need to settle into uncertainty, spend more time in communities and statehouses, and build diverse local and state coalitions that can hold leaders accountable for equity and think beyond the menu of policy options that has dominated reform conversations for the last 15 years. More thoughts on what that might look like in the coming days.

—Sara Dahill-Brown

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.