Schools are quintessentially local institutions that the distant federal government is ill-equipped to shape. Indeed, that government at any level delivers schooling could be at the heart of lackluster academic outcomes. Since the 1960s, combined federal, state, and local per-pupil spending has nearly tripled in real terms. The returns on this massive investment, as judged by the performance of high school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have been meager at best. In his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump acknowledged this disconnect, noting that the U.S. education system is “flush with cash” but leaves students “deprived of knowledge.” Yet, there is only so much that can—or should—be done by the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or the denizens of the Department of Education (DOE). The federal government simply does not have the constitutional authority, the financing stake (K–12 education is 90 percent state and locally funded), or the capacity to manage education across the country. But there are certain reforms that can and should be taken by the administration and Congress because they are under the purview of the federal government or would begin the process of unwinding federal intervention in education; in little more than a year, the Trump administration has made considerable strides in that direction.
Broadly, the administration shaped K–12 and higher education in three primary ways in 2017: through policy changes in conjunction with Congress; through considerable rescissions of Obama-era regulations; and through rhetorical markers on a variety of issues affecting education.
One of the most consequential reforms to unfold over the past year is also one of the most recent: the expansion of school choice through a change to 529 college savings accounts. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by the president in December 2017, incorporated an amendment offered by Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas that makes K–12 private-school tuition eligible for 529 savings plans. These plans are tax-neutral savings accounts whose interest is not subject to federal taxes. Moreover, 34 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) offer parallel state tax deductions and credits for 529 plan contributions, making them attractive savings vehicles. Families who choose to pay for K–12 expenses using their 529 accounts will clearly have less time to save for kindergarten than for high school, but the eligibility of anyone (such as a grandparent) to contribute to a student beneficiary’s account can also boost a family’s purchasing power.
Under the new law, 529 savers can withdraw up to $10,000 per year free of federal (and in some cases state) taxes to pay tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary private school. The economic benefit for families could add up substantially: holdings in 529 plans currently stand at $275 billion, up from just $2.4 billion in 1996. Critics of the new provision have argued that it fails to adequately extend benefits to children from low-income families, who may not have the financial means to save for tuition. States should address this issue by adopting universal education-choice options for all families (and many state-based programs are already geared specifically to low-income children by virtue of means testing). But here again, the ability for anyone to contribute to a designated beneficiary’s 529 means children from low-income families are not limited to funds their parents can contribute. By equalizing the tax treatment of K–12 and higher-education savings, the new law advances school choice without increasing direct federal intervention in education.
Trump also advanced school choice by signing into law a reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, putting that program on solid footing after eight years of opposition—in the form of budget eliminations and reauthorization fights—from the Obama administration. It is appropriate for the federal government to fund the D.C. program since the district is under the jurisdiction of Congress. Students there, along with Native American children attending Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools and children from military families, are the few eligible populations to whom the federal government has a unique obligation to provide education services.
The Trump administration has arguably had the most success on the education-reform front in its work to repeal and rescind Obama-era education regulations.
With the backing of congressional Republicans, the administration came out of the gate swinging against prescriptive regulations on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that the Obama administration had put in place in November 2016. Congress used the Congressional Review Act to pass a repeal of a regulation requiring that states rate teacher-training programs based on their graduates’ evaluation results and another regulation dealing with accountability measures. The president signed both into law in April 2017. The accountability rule was especially prescriptive and would have required states to assign each school a single summative performance rating based on a complicated set of indicators while also dictating methods for intervention in struggling schools. Both regulations were clearly beyond the purview of the federal government and not in keeping with the spirit of ESSA, which, ostensibly, sought to restore some control over education to the states.
Similarly, the new administration deferred to local authorities on policies pertaining to gender identity. Prior to leaving office, the Obama administration expanded the reach of Title IX by reinterpreting the law, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex, arguing that it applied to gender identity. The administration informed schools across the country that the departments of education and justice would now “treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX.” The Trump administration reversed this guidance, which had conditioned access to federal funding on schools allowing students who identify as transgender to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. The Trump departments of justice and education issued a joint letter rescinding the policy, restoring decisions about this sensitive issue to local school leaders and parents, who can work together to find accommodations for all affected parties.
On the question of sexual assault on campus, the Obama administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011 alerting colleges and universities that they should use a “preponderance of evidence” standard—rather than the more stringent “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard—when adjudicating sexual assault cases. The guidance created an unequal balance of power, stacking the deck in favor of the accuser and significantly weakening the due process rights of the accused. In September 2017, the Trump DOE rescinded the guidance, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has indicated that she will be working on a replacement for the rule, in an effort to better protect both those who make charges of sexual assault and those who are accused of it.
Apart from its direct actions, the Trump administration’s rhetorical support for various measures, such as apprenticeship programs, continues to shape civic debate and inform congressional efforts. The White House has lauded the promise of school choice—a stark departure from the Obama years. While Obama was moderately supportive of public-school choice options such as charters, he was hostile toward private-school options such as the D.C. scholarship program. Trump, by contrast, appointed a secretary of education who had spent decades working to advance education choice for families, and his administration has attempted to advance school choice through federal policy as appropriate. The administration has also hinted at pursuing other school-choice proposals in the coming year, including a $1 billion initiative to provide education savings accounts to military families. In my view, the federal government should have a limited role in advancing school choice through policy (military choice, the D.C. scholarship program, and choice for children attending BIE schools being among the few exceptions). However, the administration’s rhetorical support for school-choice initiatives should bolster such efforts in the states.
The White House Budget
Budgets are aspirational documents. Although Congress rarely, if ever, implements a White House budget as written, the president’s funding plan sets the tone for the administration’s priorities on a host of issues. The Trump administration’s FY2019 budget request proposes a 5 percent reduction in spending on programs managed by DOE, eliminating grants focused on a variety of K–12 and higher-education programs, and ultimately reducing spending for the agency by $3.6 billion. The administration’s FY2018 budget went further, targeting reductions in federal education spending totaling $9 billion, which would have amounted to a 13 percent cut in the DOE’s $68 billion annual budget. That recommended cutback signaled a serious commitment to lessening federal intervention in education—a necessary condition for restoring state and local control. Had Congress adhered to the White House’s budget request, the proposal would have been the largest single-year percentage cut in the department’s discretionary budget since President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 budget proposal.
The administration’s budget remained an aspirational document in 2017, and it appears the same will happen in 2018. The omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress in late March flouted the White House’s proposal by increasing, rather than decreasing, federal spending. The bill increased DOE’s budget by $3.9 billion, to $70.9 billion, representing a 6 percent increase over 2017. The administration had rightly sought reductions in that budget, aiming to begin the process of restoring state and local control of education. Yet Congress, once again, continued the federal education-spending spree.
More to Be Done
There are already indications that the administration will continue its efforts to shape education policy. In December 2017, the Trump administration filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, which allowed public-sector unions, including teachers unions, to collect fees even when an employee declines membership. The members of the court, including Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME in late February and appear poised to follow the administration’s advice.
But without question, there is more to be done. Although the administration is constrained by the parameters of the law, the education department should continue to allow for as much flexibility for states as possible. ESSA was intended to create such flexibility on a host of measures after more than a decade of ineffective prescription ordered by No Child Left Behind. If California wants to simply identify underperforming schools on the state’s dashboard, as its accountability plan suggests, or if Arizona wants to allow schools to use any standardized test that fits their needs rather than a statewide test, as ESSA’s pilot option also allows, DOE should move out of the way of these state laboratories. (So far, the approval process for state accountability plans indicates the department is doing just that.) Ultimately, the administration should work with Congress to empower states to opt out of the law altogether and apply their share of ESSA funding toward state and local priorities. It should also work to advance choice for military families, for children in D.C., and for children attending BIE schools. And it should work with Congress to dramatically reduce higher-education subsidies and to reform accreditation, decoupling that process from federal financing in a step toward restoring it as a voluntary, meaningful practice.
In sum, within a year’s time the administration has repealed onerous guidance associated with ESSA that would have infused a level of prescription on par with what prevailed under NCLB; restored decisions about school bathroom policy to localities; worked to ensure due process for the accused in cases of sexual assault allegations on college campuses; and advanced school choice in an appropriate way through existing federal policy, reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and empowering families across the country with choice through expanded 529 savings plans. All of these reforms augur positive change for American education because they have put control in the hands of those closest to the students the policies affect, thus moving federal education policy in the right direction.
That’s a pretty strong start.