Political uncertainty in the federal policy arena hung heavy over the recent ASU/GSV Summit here, an annual event that draws thousands of educational technology executives, developers, and investors, as well as educators.
Among the biggest questions at last week’s conference: How will states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, and how much leeway will the U.S. Department of Education grant them? Will the Trump administration get the deep cuts it wants to make to the Education Department? And how soon will Congress reauthorize the Higher Education Act—which affects K-12 in myriad ways?
Conference attendees also heard starkly different messages in appearances by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and former Secretary Arne Duncan, who helmed education policy for most of the Obama administration.
Views From the Top
DeVos used her May 9 speech to sound a bleak picture of K-12 education in the United States, which she noted has a high level of spending compared with many other countries. And she stressed the need to return policy authority from the federal government to the states and localities, while repeating her long-standing support for school choice.
Her visits to schools around the country since taking the top role in the Education Department, she said, “bring home the fact that we have a very large and very diverse country, and the notion that the federal government should be mandating anything from the top is pretty much a hellacious approach.”
DeVos encouraged the audience to speak with their representatives in Congress “about what you do, and how you view … the restrictions on the way you do what you are setting out to do.”
She also said the Trump administration “is very intent on ensuring that states are empowered and returning powers to localities that have heretofore had to defer to the federal government for too many things.”
Speaking on a panel a day later called “A Conversation with the Beltway Boys,” Duncan said he is less troubled about what policies the current administration might undo than he is about a lack of direction.
“I don’t see any vision. I don’t see any big goal to lead the world” in early-childhood education, graduation rates, or college completion. “These are nation-building goals. I haven’t heard one thing coming from the administration about goals.”
Questions about what comes next on national education policy emerged during a panel titled “TrumpED: How Will #45 Change the Learning and Work Landscape?”
One of the panelists, Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat and a candidate for governor, said President Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal for fiscal 2018 should deeply trouble educators, particularly because of the impact it could have on vulnerable student populations.
That budget calls for a reduction of $9 billion, or 13 percent, for Education Department spending from $68 billion today, with deep cuts to programs in professional development and after-school care, as well as the elimination or reduction of 20 programs. It also proposes rechanneling $1 billion in Title I funding for disadvantaged students into school choice, which critics say will pave the way to private school vouchers.
Many of the targeted programs help needy students and families, and “the biggest risk is that we see a retreat from all of those populations,” Johnston said. If those cuts go through, he asked, “what does the department become?”
But Lauren Maddox, a principal at the Podesta Group, a Washington government-relations and public-affairs firm, said many fears about Trump’s spending plan have been exaggerated.
Federal lawmakers will ultimately approve a spending plan to their liking, which is unlikely to make the kind of far-reaching reductions the president wants, said Maddox, who was an adviser to Trump’s transition team. Trump’s budget might be “informative” and “insightful” in outlining his priorities, she said, but “there’s going to be a lot of give and take.”
Higher Ed. ‘Shaking Out’
Meanwhile, Congress appears to be moving toward a rewrite of the Higher Education Act, which was last reauthorized in 2008.
A broad set of issues will be under the microscope, including whether to reconsider a litany of regulations affecting colleges, policy affecting Pell Grants, options for increasing the amount of information given to parents about colleges’ performance, and possibilities for overhauling financial-aid policies.
Overall, higher education is going through a period of “massive transformation,” and the landscape of institutions is “more diverse than ever,” said panelist Ben Wallerstein, the co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors, a Washington consulting and communications firm.
The steady change in the postsecondary world makes the work of lawmakers much more difficult, he said, as “things are still shaking out in the market.”
Maddox, a one-time aide to Capitol Hill Republicans, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, agreed, saying her sense from talking to congressional staffers is that there’s wariness of creating new policy as “all of this dramatic change is taking place.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as Political Policy Questions Tinge Ed-Tech Conference