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Trump, Congress, and Education in 2018: Eight Big Questions

By Alyson Klein — January 01, 2018 6 min read
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There’s plenty of suspense heading into President Donald Trump’s second year in office when it comes to education, and some big issues on the horizon for the GOP-controlled Congress as well.

What will be the fate of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget? Will U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos get to applaud any new school choice initiative? And will Congress prevent hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers” from being deported?

Here’s a rundown of what to watch for in Washington over the next 12 months when it comes to K-12:

Will the Education Department get a $9.2 billion cut?

Way back in the spring, Trump proposed slashing the Education Department’s roughly $68 billion budget by $9.2 billion. He put some key programs on the chopping block, including Title II, a $2 billion program that helps states train teachers and reduce class size, as well as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a $1.1 billion after-school and summer learning program.

It looks like the cut to the after-school program isn’t happening, since bills in both the House and Senate keep the program in place. But Title II is more of a cliffhanger. The Senate kept the program intact, but the House voted to kill it. And there are other programs that could be eliminated or cut drastically.

Lawmakers might pass a final fiscal 2018 budget this month, so we may get some answers soon. And whatever Congress passes will impact the 2018-19 school year.

Will DeVos end up getting a big school choice initiative over the finish line?

Trump came into office promising $20 billion for school choice. What he got so far: new language in the tax code that allows families to use 529 plans—previously just for college savings—for K-12 costs and private school tuition.

DeVos called that a good “first step,” but acknowledged it won’t do much to help children from low-income families.

However, it’s unclear if lawmakers will do more on school choice. Last year Congress rejected DeVos’ other school choice pitches—a new voucher program and the chance to allow Title I money to follow students to the school of their choice. It is unlikely she’ll have much more luck this year, since presidents typically are in the best position to advance their favorite programs during their first year in office. DeVos isn’t backing down yet.

“I’m going to continue to advocate for the empowerment of parents to make the right decision for their child’s education,” she told reporters last month.

DeVos could try a new school choice proposal, such as turning the $1 billion Impact Aid program into a voucher system. (Impact Aid helps districts make up for revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a reservation or military base.) That’s something the conservative Heritage Foundation has pitched. The Impact Aid community really doesn’t want to see this happen.

Will Congress come up with a legislative fix to save hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers” from deportation?

Last year, President Donald Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, an Obama-era initiative that gave some 800,000 undocumented immigrants that came to the country as children—known as Dreamers—a chance to stay legally. Unless Congress acts, DACA will end in March, and recipients could face deportation. That has big implications for schools. Some 250,000 school-age children have become DACA-eligible since President Barack Obama began the program in 2012. And about 20,000 current DACA recipients are working as teachers, the Migration Policy Institute estimates. Trump has challenged Congress to come up with a plan to protect Dreamers, and some lawmakers are pushing to get things done, but there’s nothing imminent as far as a deal goes.

What happens with implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Every state has turned in a plan to implement ESSA. As of late last month, 15 states and the District of Columbia, all of which filed their plans last spring, had been approved. The department is currently in the process of reviewing the 34 plans filed last fall. So far, DeVos has approved plans even if states didn’t make all of the changes the Education Department asked for. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., an ESSA architect, has expressed big concerns about this.

What’s more, states and districts are waiting to see if the department moves forward on two pilot programs in the law, dealing with weighted-student funding formulas and innovative assessments.

How much will DeVos be able to roll back the department’s footprint?

One of the Trump administration’s top priorities is getting rid of regulations, programs, and even personnel that it describes as unnecessary or duplicative. At the beginning of last year, Congress got the ball rolling by getting rid of ESSA accountability regulations and teacher-prep regulations through the Congressional Review Act. So far, DeVos has scrapped hundreds of pieces of guidance and rules that she said were outdated or redundant.

There could be some bigger regulatory changes on the horizon. DeVos and company may delay implementation of an Obama-era rule that would require states to take a stricter approach to identifying whether their districts have wide racial or ethnic disparities in special education. She may get rid of Obama-era guidance calling on districts to ensure that their discipline policies don’t have a disproportionate impact on students from certain racial and ethnic groups. The department has a task force working on this issue.

DeVos has also offered buy-outs to shrink the department’s workforce.

Will Congress overhaul higher education and career and technical education?

Lawmakers are years overdue on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The CTE bill, which governs the biggest federal program for high schools, is held up in part because Senate can’t agree on what the federal role should be, even though the House passed a bipartisan version of the bill last year. And the higher education legislation governs teacher preparation and college access. For instance, a bill pending in the House would end a teacher loan-forgiveness program.

What happens with Medicaid cuts and their potential impact on schools?

Think school districts dependent on Medicaid funding dodged a bullet when Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act? Think again. School district advocates still see plenty of legislative vehicles for potential cuts to Medicaid. Republican leaders have floated the possibility of “entitlement reform,” which could impact the federal health insurance program for the poor.

Schools get about $4 billion a year from Medicaid, making it the third-largest pot of federal funding for schools. That money covers everything from salaries for school health nurses, speech therapists, and other personnel to medical equipment for students. Educators fear any changes to Medicaid could jeopardize that funding.

How will education play in the midterms?

The party that doesn’t hold the White House typically does well in midterm congressional elections, so Democrats have a shot at retaking the House of Representatives. And there’s a slim chance they could pick up seats in the Senate. So will Democrats use K-12 issues—especially opposition to DeVos—to get voters to the polls? It’s a good bet. The party started invoking DeVos’ name in fundraising emails even before she was officially sworn in as secretary.

And DeVos is even less popular with educators than Trump. Of course, after the midterms comes the presidential race and, probably, a hotly contested Democratic primary, which could mean plenty of talk about education.

Want a trip down memory lane? Check out our what to watch from 2017.

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