Last December, Republicans and advocates for education practitioners—including teachers’ unions—teamed up to shrink the federal footprint on K-12 education, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The law maintained some “guardrails” for historically disadvantaged groups of students but not nearly as many as some in the civil rights community would have liked. And it included some pretty big blows for “reform-minded” Democrats, such as a section restricting the U.S. Secretary of Education’s role on teacher evaluation, standards, school turnarounds and more. Those provisions read like a personal rebuke to former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who stretched his executive muscles using waivers and competitive grants.
Teachers’ unions, who were also pretty annoyed at Duncan for using federal authority to push policies like teacher evaluation tied to test scores, didn’t seem put off by those prohibitions. In fact, the National Education Association gave the provisions’ chief architect, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a “Friend of Education” award, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., his partner on ESSA.
Flash forward one year later: Donald Trump, who said he wants to direct $20 billion in federal funding to a giant school choice program, has been elected president. And he’s picked an education secretary, billionaire donor Betsy DeVos, who has been advocating for school choice for decades—a sign he’s serious about the proposal.
Meanwhile, Alexander and many other Republican leaders in Congress have made no secret of the fact that they think vouchers are good policy. In fact, Alexander introduced a proposal for a “Pell Grants for Kids” program that would essentially accomplish what Trump pitched on the campaign trail, allowing states to take billions in federal funding and direct it to school choice programs, including private school choice.
Alexander tried to make the program a part of ESSA, but couldn’t get it past procedural hurdles in the Senate, in part because of opposition from school groups.
So does a big voucher push mean the honeymoon between school groups and the GOP is over?
“I don’t think it should be,” said a Senate GOP aide. “The answer is you work with each other when you agree and you work against each other when you don’t.”
Republicans and advocates for practitioners were on the same page when it came to a lot of what’s in ESSA, the aide said. And, in the aide’s view, nothing has changed there. In fact, if Trump’s secretary of education takes federal authority too far and tries to mandate particular priorities—including vouchers—through regulation, GOP lawmakers are probably not going to be very happy.
“I don’t know that Republicans in Congress would put up with that,” the aide said. “There’s no role in mandating vouchers unless we pass a new bill.”
Unless and until that happens, the real K-12 action is now with the states, the aide said.
“The K-12 era [in Washington] is over. Congress will move on to higher ed and early ed,” the aide said. And on ESSA? “I bet Betsy DeVos is going to approve every state plan that comes to her.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, says she expects that there will still be common ground on ESSA implementation. And she’s hoping GOP lawmakers will resist the temptation to act on Trump’s voucher program.
“Most Congress members who voted for the bill remain in office, and if they continue to follow the will of the voters, the coalition will
remain focused on supporting our public schools and the 90 percent of America’s children who attend them,” said Weingarten in an email. “This is a gut check for Congress about what its members believe in: a populist agenda for strong public schools, or an ideological fixation on a 25-year voucher experiment that makes Wall Street and private school advocates more money, but has never had an effect on student success.”
But Jack Jennings, a long-time aide to Democrats on the House education committee, thinks that the unions and other groups representing district officials will have their hands full fighting vouchers—and they probably won’t be able to turn to their sometime-GOP allies for help.
“Anyone who is in favor of public education is going to have a fight and a half on their hands the next couple years,” he said. “The Republicans control everying, so it’s going to be difficult to stop them,” particularly if a GOP president and education secretary are leading the charge.
Both the National Education Association and the AFT quickly threw cold water on Trump’s selection of DeVos. And that may have been a tactical error, said Andy Smarick, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. (DeVos is on the organization’s board and has donated to it.)
After all, a hefty chunk of NEA and AFT members voted for Trump. The unions could have decided to rethink their views on school choice in light of that, Smarick said. But they didn’t.
“They played this exactly according to script,” he said. “There was an opening, and now it feel like that door is shut.”
On the flip side, though, Trump’s election—and a big school choice pitch—may bring together groups that found themselves at odds on issues like accountability, testing, and spending rules.
If the Trump administration pushes hard to allow federal money to be used for vouchers, advocates for teachers, superintendents, and other practitioners are almost certain to find common cause with civil rights advocates.
“A full attack on public education is a great way to unify a diverse constituency that represents almost all children in the country,” said Liz King, the director of education policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The level of the threat that we perceive to be in the works at the moment is going to call for new alliances and partnerships and building a broader opposition. An attack on public education is bad for the civil rights community, bad for educators, bad for students, and bad for the economic future of the country.”
Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which worked closely with Republicans on ESSA but vehemently opposes vouchers, said she’s ready to team up with whomever she needs to in order to fight Trump’s proposal.
And she won’t be surprised to find herself strategizing over the next few months with groups that were on the opposite side of the negotiating table on issues like accountability and wonky regulations governing “supplement-not-supplant” during negotiations over ESSA’s development and implementation.
“We have no forever friends and no forever enemies,” Ellerson Ng said. And, because everyone in Congress has a public school in his or her district, “every [member of Congress] is fair game”.
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