The U.S. Department of Education’s role after President-elect Donald Trump is very unclear right now. Trump has not chosen an education secretary. His education policies were spelled out very late in his campaign, and even then, his proposals for improving education were short on details.
Here’s what we do know: As president, Trump will likely pare back a number of different regulatory and oversight mechanisms employed by the Department of Education. A Trump administration would probably take a backseat to investigating civil rights issues and monitoring states’ implementation of major federal education legislation.
While President Trump isn’t likely to fulfill a longstanding conservative dream and abolish the Department of Education outright, his policies will likely turn it into a significantly weaker agency.
The Office of Civil Rights under Trump
During the campaign, Trump said he would either dismantle U.S. Department of Education or cut it by “a lot.” Eliminating the department is a popular proposal among previous Republican candidates for president, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Recently Trump surrogates have said they support the notion of cutting the department instead of scrapping it entirely. But they have also said there is no reason to keep the Office of Civil Rights.
This is the office that takes complaints from parents who say their children are being discriminated against for their disability, and from students who claim that their university’s process for investigating campus sexual assault fails to meet Title IX requirements. The office investigates also whether schools’ student discipline policies discriminate against students of color, and if schools are adhering to Title IX guidance barring discrimination against transgender students.
Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation whose work focuses on inequality in education, said eliminating or downsizing the office would have a “devastating” effect on disadvantaged students. She said she is particularly concerned that newer developments — such as rules protecting the right of transgender students to use the bathroom, gym, or athletic team of their gender — would be neglected or rescinded under a Trump administration.
“We have seen the way in which having federal guidance around transgender students, for example, has really helped to empower a number of students to make sure they are getting access to the education they need in state and district climates that vary wildly on those issues,” Potter said. “If that is delegated only to the states, then I think we would expect to see a real increase in acts of aggression and violence against some of our most vulnerable students.”
The Trump administration could rescind the education department’s 2014 guidance, which tells school districts that the office may enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and investigate schools where discipline policies have a “disproportionate and unjustified effect” on students based on race. The department also released guidance this year on how schools should use police officers assigned to schools, known as school resource officers. The guidance advised that school resource offers be deployed to classrooms when there is a threat to school safety, instead of disciplining students for minor misbehavior in the classroom.
Without this guidance, schools would have more latitude to use school resource officers as managers of classroom behavior. Schools may also fail to train officers on how to interact with young people, particularly teenagers, who tend to resist authority as part of their development.
The implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act
A bipartisan law affecting how schools assess and monitor achievement gaps will also have less oversight under a Trump administration. That bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act, included a lot of wins for Democrats, but it also handed a significant amount of power back to the states. The Obama administration has been duking it out with one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) over the expenditure of Title I money. Title I, part of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides funding to schools with a high share of low-income children.
Under a Trump administration, it’s likely that in addition to the reduction of a federal role in education through ESSA, oversight of its implementation would be dialed back significantly. A spokeswoman for Alexander told The Washington Post that “The Trump Administration has a prime opportunity to significantly reduce the intrusion of the Education Department into our local schools and classrooms … When the Trump Administration enforces the Every Student Succeeds Act as written, the size of the Education Department will be necessarily and appropriately diminished.”
Scott Sargrad, managing director of K-12 education policy at The Center for American Progress, said the Trump administration could simply choose to step back from the department’s oversight role. States are asked to come up with their own school improvement plans, for example, but the department decides whether to monitor those plans to make sure they are serving students appropriately under the law.
“They do have a lot of discretion in that and could just decide they don’t take enforcement seriously and let states do whatever they would like to do with their new plans,” Sargrad said. “ I do think you’re going to have some states that want to continue to push forward with reform efforts showing benefits to students, but then you’ll have states that really just do the bare minimum or in smaller ways, roll back the protections and advances.”
Inequality under school choice policies
Trump’s education agenda is clearest when it comes to his vision for school choice. School choice means that federal, state, and local governments can help fund programs that allow students to choose private school options. Last September, Trump rolled out a $20 billion block grant proposal that would use existing federal funds to incentivize school choice programs. He said every child should be able to obtain vouchers to private, charter, magnet, and traditional public schools.
Republicans embraced school choice programs throughout the primary, claiming this would allow schools to compete in a public school marketplace and push public schools to improve.
Trump said $110 billion of state funds and $20 billion in existing federal funds are needed to create this education marketplace for students. The $20 billion would be used for block grants. These grants would provide incentives for states to adopt voucher programs and promote more charter schools, private schools, and religious schools. Setting aside billions in federal funds to create a marketplace where none existed would be a significant departure from Trump’s argument that the federal government needs to reduce its role in education.
Data from school choice programs in Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Ohio show that a school choice plan does not always improve the quality of education for all students. Public school teachers often say they’re worried that school choice programs will only drain public schools of resources and abdicate the federal government’s responsibility to provide a quality education to every student.
Many families may not have the tools to assess which voucher options are improvements over public schools, versus those that are simply online schools with poor state oversight, like some of the poor-performing charter schools in Ohio. In New Orleans, for example, last year, half of students were never matched with the top school of their choice — and many weren’t matched with their second school of choice — and had to wait until the next round of the enrollment process.
“Schools have to compete for students in that model but students are also competing for schools,” said Potter of The Century Foundation. “I think when you shift to that model, what it means is that the losers are going to be the most disadvantaged children, whose families lack the information and resources they need in order to access high-quality options.”
Assessing the extent of the damage
If Trump steps back from enforcement of civil rights laws in K-12 schools, students from low-income families, LGBTQ students, female students, and students of color will surely feel the effects.
But state and local governments still have a lot of control over education policy. If students are fortunate to live in areas where progressive education policies are having some momentum, such as those that are working on expanding pre-K and community school programs, some of the damage of a Trump presidency may be mitigated.
Potter said there are a lot of positive developments in state and local education policy right now. But without a friendly Department of Education, cities and states will lose many of the incentives driving these policies.
“I think probably the bigger loss not that we’re likely to see districts abandoning this work, but rather that we won’t have the important role of a federal push for getting districts to do this work, either through a carrot or a stick. Those have been ways to bring more districts to that work and that is something we really stand to lose.”
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