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Every Student Succeeds Act

Trump Set to Shift Gears on Civil Rights, ESSA, Says a K-12 Transition-Team Leader

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 09, 2016 3 min read
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President-elect Donald Trump will work to ensure “a new way of how to deliver public education” that focuses on educational entrepreneurship and strong public and private school options, according to a leader of Trump’s presidential transition team responsible for education.

Gerard Robinson, a research fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and former state chief in Florida and Virginia, also said Wednesday that Trump will “streamline, at least” the U.S. Department of Education. And a Trump administration will likely take a significantly different approach than President Barack Obama’s administration when it comes to contentious spending rules under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Trump could also discard another key piece of the Obama education legacy: The president-elect could significantly curb the role of the department’s office for civil rights when it comes to state and local policies, according to Robinson, and thereby return that office’s role more to how it operated under Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. That could have a big impact on everything from action on school-discipline disparities, to transgender students’ rights. Robinson also said that he expects the office for civil rights to ensure that students’ rights are not “trampled on.”

But Robinson expects states to have a great deal of flexibility in the ESSA accountability plans that they submit to the Trump administration starting early next year—significantly more than they enjoyed under Obama-era waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, which ESSA replaces.

“This is a great time to be a state chief,” Robinson said, adding at the same time that, “I don’t want state chiefs to think that when they turn those [plans] in that, ‘Oh, well, these will just get approved.’”

Robinson is leading Trump’s transition team for education along with Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Robinson’s comments about the proposed ESSA spending rules known as supplement-not-supplant indicate that anything the Obama administration does before the president leaves office in January could be rescinded. Republican lawmakers, who will continue to control Congress, have said Obama proposals on that score have been far too restrictive on states and districts.

“I think [Trump’s] secretary of education will handle it differently than what we’ve seen from [current Secretary] John King” regarding those rules, Robinson said.

However, when it comes to ESSA in general, Robinson said he believes Trump views the law as a result of a “bipartisan coalition” and that the president-elect won’t get too heavily involved in ESSA’s rollout.

As for that $20 billion school choice plan Trump pitched on the campaign trail? Robinson indicated it represents the start of discussions about the issue for Trump.

“We still have to have negotiations with members of the House and the Senate to make that happen,” he said. “But the fact that he put that out there ... I think it’s a good way to start the conversation. Whether it’s $20 [billion] or not remains to be seen.”

More generally, Robinson said, “I see him supporting public and private choice-based programs. I see him supporting blended learning models, alternative learning models.”

And remember those Trump pledges that he would get rid of the Common Core State Standards?

“To be determined. But he will expect his secretary of education to have something to say about common core,” Robinson said, adding that the same goes for early-childhood education issues.

In addition to school choice and entrepreneurship, Robinson said financial accountability for higher education, in particular, would be the another key piece of Trump’s approach to education policy. He said Trump will likely want to continue significant investments in colleges and universities, but also closely track how well graduates do in the labor market, among other indicators.

Robinson brushed off the idea that he might be interested in becoming Trump’s education secretary himself, saying he’s happy working at AEI. But he indicated that Trump could cast a wide net in his search for the next secretary (assuming, Robinson conceded, that Trump does not move to eliminate the department as a cabinet-level agency.)

The search for a new secretary could include governors, state chiefs, and local superintendents, or Trump could “move outside and pick someone from the private sector, who may not have worked in education directly, but may be involved in philanthropy or some kind of reform.” Robinson said.


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