Every Student Succeeds Act

Trump Orders Hard Look at Federal Reach on K-12 Policy

By Alyson Klein — May 09, 2017 3 min read
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President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have made local control a major focus of their statements on K-12. And Trump underscored that priority in his recent executive order calling on DeVos to take a hard look at where the federal government has overreached on K-12 education.

The order directs DeVos to review, tweak, and even repeal regulations and guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education recently, as well as identify places where the federal government has overstepped its legal authority.

Recently, “too many in Washington have advanced top-down mandates that take away autonomy and limit the options available to educators, administrators, and parents,” said Rob Goad, a senior Education Department aide, on a call with reporters last month. The executive order puts “an end to this overreach, ensuring that states and localities are free to make educational decisions,” he added.

In response to the executive order, a task force at the department, led by Robert Eitel, a senior adviser to the secretary, will look at all the K-12 regulations put out by prior administrations and decide which step on local control, Goad said. After 300 days, the department is supposed to release a report on its findings.

Reinforcing the Message

DeVos doesn’t need an executive order—or a task force—to strike down regulations or rescind guidance put out by previous administrations. She can already delay or decline to enforce regulations, or change guidance.

“It doesn’t create any new authority,” said Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy. “It doesn’t change what we knew to be the position of the president. It might add some formality to the work that the secretary and her team already plan to do. It’s a formal way to express their policy that the federal role should be smaller.”

Goad acknowledged as much in his call with reporters to discuss the April 26 order, confirming that DeVos was indeed already empowered to examine, revise, and rescind rules and regulations before the order. And already, Congress has scrapped the Obama administration’s regulations on accountability and teacher preparation.

The executive order seems to be a not-so-veiled shot at President Barack Obama’s administration, which used $4 billion in Race to the Top funding to entice states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations using student test scores, and more. The Education Department under Obama also offered states waivers from many mandates of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, in exchange for adopting other policies, such as using dramatic strategies to turn around low-performing schools.

But such activities are already prohibited by the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA, which Obama signed in 2015 to replace the NCLB law, is designed to reduce the federal role in K-12 in part by prohibiting the education secretary from using money or flexibility to influence states’ standards, teacher evaluations, and school turnaround strategies. In fact, because of ESSA and other federal laws that predate it, Trump can’t fulfill his campaign promise to get rid of the common core, which remains in place in more than 35 states and the District of Columbia.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, was quick to seize on the idea that the executive order won’t make much of a difference.

“Rather than another executive order, perhaps the president and DeVos need to read the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as laws covering the civil rights and privacy of students, and then listen to stakeholders, including educators and parents,” Weingarten said.

‘Changes Absolutely Nothing’

The Democratic National Committee was even more blunt, saying Trump was essentially signing an empty order to chalk up another accomplishment for his first 100 days in office, a milestone he passed late last month.

This executive order “changes absolutely nothing,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the DNC. “Trump isn’t signing it to actually improve education for American students, he is doing it to put a fake point on the board within his first 100 days because he doesn’t have any accomplishments of significance.”

But Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy organization, praised the executive order. “The process,” she said in a statement, “will also allow the public to learn just how much oversight occurs as a result of bureaucracy, not law, and pave the way for all schools to focus on outcomes, not compliance.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Trump Orders Hard Look at Federal Reach on K-12 Policy


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