We’ve told you over and over again: education is not a front-burner issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. And with the Every Student Succeeds Act on the books, many folks believe the next president simply won’t be in a position to put a significant stamp on federal K-12 policy.
But is that sentiment right?
We talked to two education policy wonks about that question. One, Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, said it’s not. The other, Texas attorney and No Child Left Behind Act architect Sandy Kress, said there may be some truth to it—but he’s not sure what difference that will ultimately make.
Vague, But Big, Fights?
First and foremost, Aldeman argues, ESSA itself isn’t crystal clear on key issues. He cited the prominent provision that requires academic indicators to count for “much” more than the indicator of school quality in state accountability systems. The Education Department shied away from suggesting or requiring any numbers related to that language.
“ESSA is not exactly a clear law. It relies on vague terms It’s a Rorschach test for what people think it means,” he told us. (Aldeman made this and other points in a Bellwether blog post last month.)
Aldeman also argued that when it comes to approving state plans, it’s going to be hard to track how the U.S. Department of Education handles each one. Federal officials have a lot of sway in those sorts of negotiations and agreements that typically don’t get a ton of attention. The next leaders of the department, for example, have the power to appoint peer reviewers who will go over the plans and correspond with states about them. The the peer reviewers will have a significant amount of influence over what gets approved.
Aldeman’s point: Who knows what beliefs and ideas those reviewers will bring to the table that’s different from those in Congress or the Obama administration? It may not be flashy, but that process could create a notable shift in what states are able to get approved under ESSA, he said.
“It’s amazing all the stuff that goes into it,” said Aldeman, who used to work in the Obama Education Department, of reviewing states’ proposals on these thorny issues.
Kress, on the other hand, is of two minds about this sort of thing.
He doesn’t deny there might be some “big fights” over behind-the-scenes issues, and that ESSA is in fact a vague law. But he also thinks the chances are pretty good that the general trajectory for ESSA has already been set, and Republican lawmakers in Congress mostly made sure of it.
“The conservative footprint is probably going to be the winner,” Kress said.
We Take It Back
One area where the next president’s Education Department could make a big impact? Rescinding some aspects of Obama-era ESSA regulations involving accountability and spending, assuming things now on the proposed are finalized by the time the adminstration leaves office, Aldeman said.
“The single summative rating [requirement] is definitely one of the ones that I would wonder about,” he said.
Another potential victim of a “never mind that” approach by the next administration? Anything that resembles the controversial per-pupil spending plan floated by the department in ESSA negotiations this past spring.
Kress said that, generally, if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the White House, he could see some easing of regulations that the two national teachers’ unions (both big Clinton backers) don’t like. But a President Donald Trump, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t care too much about this sort of political quid pro quo and would let states and locals steer the ship.
Handoff or Fumble?
Then there’s the lack of recent precedent for this sort of transition.
Aldeman pointed out that the two previous reauthorizations of federal education law, the Improving America’s Schools Act and the No Child Left Behind Act, were both passed relatively early in the respective presidential administrations. IASA was passed in 1994, the second year of President Bill Clinton’s time in office, and the same goes for NCLB, which President
George W. Bush signed in 2002.
By contrast, as we’ve previously written, there will be an ESSA handoff between Obama’s Education Department and the next administration early next year. And Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute expressed concerns that that handoff could turn into a fumble, damaging or derailing the transition to ESSA. Aside from the potential to strengthen or weaken that transition, however, there are possibilities for the next administration to put its own touches on how the law will work.
So unlike the previous two versions of the federal education law, ESSA will have fingerprints from both the Obama administration and the next president on it. How many will come from the latter? IASA and NCLB don’t really provide any precedent.
And Kress also pointed out something you may have forgotten: The authorization period for ESSA only lasts four years. So technically, by the beginning of 2020, we’re
supposed to have a reauthorization of federal education law. (By then, how popular will the #FixESSA hashtag be on Twitter—assuming Twitter is still around?)
Now, if current political trends in Washington continue, the chance of getting a new federal education law by 2020 seems pretty small—especially if you consider that Congress was about eight years overdue in reauthorizing the law and replacing No Child Left Behind with ESSA.
Kress said that the next president might at least start making a reauthorization push. And if the next president gets re-elected in 2020, that could provide good momentum for reauthorization heading into that president’s second term.
On the other hand, there’s money. A Hillary Clinton as president, for example, might want to push for bigger appropriations for a variety of education programs, only to get stiff-armed by Congress if Republicans control one or both chambers.
At the end of the day, Kress foresees education taking a backseat, or even getting put in the trunk, during the next administration.
“I think this is going to be the least-impactful administration, going back decades, regardless of who wins,” he said.
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