President Donald Trump said less about education on the campaign trail than almost any major-party nominee in recent history, except for a high-profile proposal on single issue: school vouchers. But his ascendance to the White House could upend K-12 education in ways that are felt from the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington to urban schools that serve big numbers of immigrant students.
In his unconventional bid for president, Trump—a real estate developer and TV personality who had never held public office—promised he would deport millions of immigrants, eliminate or scale back the Education Department, and create a $20 billion school voucher program.
After his election, he picked as education secretary a school choice advocate and Republican mega-donor, Betsy DeVos, who seems likely to help him try to deliver on that voucher promise.
And in his inaugural address Jan. 20, Trump did little to allay the anxieties of those concerned about his view of the nation’s public school system, decrying “an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
Trump’s inauguration last week came at a time when schools are already experiencing significant changes and anxieties. Children from racial minorities now collectively make up a majority of the public school population. Technology is remaking instruction. Aid for education in many states still hasn’t recovered from the Great Recession.
And a new federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, gives states and districts more control over testing, accountability, school turnarounds, and teacher quality than they had in more than decade under the law’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.
At either end of the education span, Trump also has said little about college access or about early-childhood education, beyond a proposal to expand tax credits for child care, to be championed by his daughter Ivanka.
Big questions loom about how the 45th president and his team will handle this rapidly shifting landscape. Conservatives are eager for their best opportunity since the Reagan era to shrink the federal role in education and dramatically expand options for parents, while Trump is sure to face fierce opposition from educators and advocates who fear that his administration will move to privatize a sizable chunk of public education.
It may take a while for a clear picture to emerge of just how much Trump and DeVos will be able to accomplish. Over the coming weeks, the new administration will need to choose and Congress will have to confirm the president’s nominees for key positions at the department. In all, the administration is allowed to hire some 150 political appointees for the agency.
Against this uncertain backdrop, here are six areas for educators to watch closely this year:
The Trump administration will have a major role in implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, the bipartisan law that passed in 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind Act. For instance, the new team will get to decide whether to delay, revise, or simply toss some of the Obama administration’s ESSA regulations, including on accountability. Congressional Republicans have already targeted the accountability regulation for the elimination through the Congressional Review Act.
ESSA—which retains the previous law’s annual testing while turning authority on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and other policy matters over to states and districts—is slated to be fully in place in the 2017-18 school year. That means the Trump team will get to approve state accountability plans for the new law.
States’ initial deadline for those plans is in April, but key federal players still may not be in the job by then.
“I’m doubtful that they are going to have enough staff in place to start reviewing plans unless they simply rubber-stamp them,” said Michael Petrilli, who served in the department at the start of the George W. Bush administration and is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
As education secretary, DeVos could also put a high priority on the pieces of ESSA that will help advance her school choice agenda, emphasizing, for instance, a weighted-student-funding pilot that will allow federal, state, and local aid to be tied to individual students, with more money going to needier students. And she could encourage states and districts to take advantage of a provision in the law allowing students at low-performing schools to transfer to a better public school.
Trump’s first budget proposal, which will cover federal fiscal year 2018, is likely to come out sometime in late winter or even spring. That will give educators and advocates a sense of whether Trump is planning to immediately make good on his campaign promise to get rid of the Education Department, or at least cut it “way, way down.”
Scrapping the 37-year-old agency, with a budget of about $70 billion this year and some 4,000 career employees, would be a tough political lift, even though both houses of Congress are in Republican hands. But some proposed program elimination seems likely, particularly for initiatives that are viewed as part of President Barack Obama’s legacy, such as Promise Neighborhoods, which helps school districts pair academics with other services, such as affordable housing.
The budget could also provide insight into how the Trump administration plans to deal with across-the-board cuts, known as “sequestration,” that were enacted under a budget deal in 2011 and are slated to be in place through the new president’s first term.
Over the past few years, Republicans have tangled with the Obama administration over whether to stop those cuts for both defense spending and domestic programs, or just for military spending. Trump said during the campaign that he wanted to end the cuts for defense, but he didn’t address programs such as education.
Trump’s presidency—and his decision to tap DeVos, a longtime voucher and charter school advocate, as education secretary—presents proponents of school choice with perhaps their biggest opening for major federal backing in the history of that movement.
The explosion of interest in school choice in recent years has mostly been at the state level, said Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which supports school choice and is a strong supporter of DeVos.
Allen noted that over the past couple of decades, nearly every state has adopted a charter law, while some have moved on other forms of school choice, such as education savings accounts. But even in statehouses, it’s typically an “uphill battle, rarely getting the kind of support and recognition from Washington that it needs,” Allen said. With Trump and DeVos at the helm, that’s likely to change, she said.
Trump’s only major K-12 pitch on the campaign trail was for a $20 billion voucher program, to be paid for using unspecified federal funds. That’s a long shot in Congress, which defeated a similar proposal when it considered ESSA.
But a big voucher initiative isn’t the only way the Trump administration could further its goal of expanding school choice.
The administration could work with Congress to create or expand education savings-account programs, which can also help families cover the cost of private schools. It could also develop a federal tax-credit scholarship program, giving individuals and corporations a tax break in exchange for donating to organizations that help needy students cover the cost of private school.
Or the president and his team could ask lawmakers to pour resources into federal grants for charter schools or a voucher program serving District of Columbia students.
One catch: GOP lawmakers from rural areas are unlikely to be big fans of school choice programs because students in remote schools often already must travel an hour or more to the closest regular public school. In her confirmation hearing, DeVos said those schools might benefit from distance-learning programs. But rural schools have broadband challenges that might make it tough for them to take advantage of virtual learning, and at this point even some choice supporters say the quality of the programs is still uneven.
Under the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education’s office for civil rights has been an aggressive arm of the agency, processing a record 17,000 complaints and opening up 4,000 investigations in fiscal year 2016 alone. The OCR has issued guidance on a wide range of issues, among them making sure that students have access to the same career and technical opportunities regardless of gender, ensuring educational rights for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and calling for districts to allow transgender students to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.
For now, there’s a lot of anxiety and little concrete information about how the Trump administration will handle the OCR and civil rights in general. When Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., pressed DeVos on that point at her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, the nominee for education secretary didn’t go into specifics. But she said she believes students deserve to be in an environment that’s “safe and free from discrimination.”
Advocates expect that one of the Trump administration’s first moves on education will be rescinding the transgender guidance. More broadly, Trump’s campaign has some in the civil rights community deeply worried about how he and his team will enforce laws protecting students from discrimination.
“How would she enforce [civil rights laws] in a climate where the [president] has normalized discrimination of national origin and religion?” said Liz King, the director of education policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, referring to comments that Trump made about Mexicans and Muslims during the campaign.
No issue dominated Trump’s campaign as much as immigration. As a candidate, Trump pledged to create a “deportation force” to round up the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Since winning the presidency, Trump has said his first priority will be deporting the 2 million to 3 million immigrants that he believes have criminal records. He hasn’t given specifics about how those plans would affect schoolchildren.
Trump also repeatedly said that he would rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama executive order that allows some children of undocumented immigrants to receive two-year work permits. Some DACA workers serve as teachers, including through alternative-route programs such as Teach For America. During his confirmation hearing, Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said that repealing DACA would need to be studied, but in his opinion the executive order is “very questionable constitutionally.” He didn’t offer specifics about how he would handle undocumented immigrants who have benefitted from the program, but said he would like the administration to work with Congress on a legislative solution.
Whether or not Trump, as president, makes good on those plans, the threat of mass deportations has unnerved many children and educators, said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center aimed at providing resources to K-12 schools to help advance equity and inclusion.
“Teachers of immigrant students are feeling very stressed themselves. They want to be able to protect the kids they teach, and they feel unable to do so,” she said.
School district officials are worried that classrooms will no longer be considered sensitive places where immigration raids can’t take place, Costello said. The Los Angeles Unified School District and Santa Cruz city schools have passed resolutions pledging to resist any requests for student information from federal immigration officials.
There are even fears, Costello said, that after the addition of a Trump-appointed justice or two, the U.S. Supreme Court could have an opportunity to overturn Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 ruling that the children of undocumented immigrants are entitled to attend public schools for free. Such an about-face seems unlikely, she said, given that the precedent has been on the books for more than three decades.
Still, some civil rights advocates worry about what enforcement of Plyler will look like under Trump.
Congressional Republicans have been vowing for years to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment. With a Republican president, that aim now moves closer to reality. A repeal of what is widely known as Obamacare could have big implications for teachers, students, and younger children.
For one thing, the ACA requires that health plans cover mental and behavioral health, alongside medical services. If the law is repealed entirely, children from families without employer-based health care and that make too much to qualify for programs like Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan—and who need more help with behavioral or emotional problems than their schools are able to provide—could lose access to that coverage, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government affairs for the National Association of School Psychologists.
The ACA encouraged most states to expand Medicaid. Those funds often go to school districts to help cover the cost of vision screenings, preventive care for students, and other services.
The law has also helped pay for grants to finance internship stipends for health professionals—including school psychologists and social workers—who want to train in high-needs schools, Vaillancourt Strobach said.
Other provisions of the 2010 law haven’t been as enthusiastically embraced in the education community. For instance, the law calls for employers with at least 50 workers to provide coverage for full-time employees or pay a fine, with full-time employees defined as those working 30 or more hours a week. Some district officials say the mandate has left them scrambling to find money to cover uninsured workers—in many cases support staff—or forced them to cut employee hours.
And both national teachers’ unions have backed an effort to repeal a significant funding mechanism for the law: the so-called Cadillac tax on plans with rich benefits. The tax, which is slated to go into effect in 2020, could affect some plans for district employees, including teachers.
It’s unclear how quickly an ACA repeal could happen and whether lawmakers would have a replacement ready as soon as the law was rolled back. What’s more, Trump has also said he’d like to retain some of the most popular parts of the law, which could have implications for some of the programs that benefit schools and students.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Crossroads for K-12 Policy With Trump Now at Helm