Education Policy, Trump, and What’s Ahead in 2017

Wednesday, December 21, 2016 -- Dave Adams

After what was, in my opinion, the longest, strangest election in modern U.S. politics, I find myself a bit bewildered as I attempt to deconstruct what just happened and parse the election year political hype from actual policy changes that may lie ahead. President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on an education platform of open-market, competitive principles. And, after the nomination of school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, it’s clear that President-elect Trump intends to make this a central pillar in his new education agenda.

While the Trump transition team prepares to take office, Congress continues to move forward with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), issuing final regulatory guidance. For those of you wondering if ESSA will have relevancy in a Trump administration, I’d remind you of two things: First, ESSA was passed by a House and Senate under Republican control, so it already aligns with many Trump principles. These include limiting federal control; handing power back to the states to determine their own state standards, assessment, and accountability systems; and reducing regulation and oversight from Washington. Second, it’s important to remember that change in education takes time. For example, even though the George W. Bush administration hit the ground running with a detailed plan to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it took them a full year to transform No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into policy and law. 

So, before we dig into the Trump education plan, let’s spend a few minutes and catch up on ESSA:

Final ESSA regulatory guidance:

Congress just released the latest and final round of regulatory guidance on ESSA, which gives states even more flexibility and time to implement the policies. Here are a few important regulatory clarifications worth noting:

Implementation Timelines for State Accountability Systems:

  • By school year 2017–18, states must have their new accountability systems in place
  • By school year 2018–19, states must begin identifying schools for comprehensive support and improvement,
  • By school year 2019–20, states must begin identifying schools with consistently underperforming subgroups

School Data Dashboards:

  • States have been given some flexibility in providing parents, communities, and stakeholders with data dashboards that either:
    • Use the three designations listed in ESSA—1) comprehensive support and improvement, 2) targeted support and improvement, and 3) unidentified schools
    • Are developed by states with their own designations (at least three) to communicate school performance on state accountability

School Quality and Student Success Indicators:

  • States have been given flexibility to design systems that include indicators of academic progress, as well as school quality or student success. The final regulatory guidance provides some examples but makes clear that this can include any measure supported by research, such as:
    • Grade point average
    • Credit accumulation
    • Performance in advanced coursework
    • Graduation rates
    • Postsecondary enrollment
    • Career success

Subgroup Accountability:

  • While states were given flexibility in the final regulatory guidance to set minimum subgroup sizes for accountability (n-size), they are required to justify any n-size larger than 30. This is to prevent the pre-ESSA practice of combining multiple subgroups into “super-subgroups” when reporting data and measuring achievement gaps.
  • Additionally, states must identify persistently underperforming subgroups after two years of underperformance, but they can propose longer timeframes if they can show that additional time will better support progress in closing gaps.

English Language Proficiency Timeline:

  • ESSA does not set a maximum timeline for attainment of English language proficiency, but the final regulatory guidance does clarify that states must set maximum timelines that are rigorous, realistic, and research-based. The balance here is in mandating progress toward English language proficiency while ensuring that students receive the services needed.

Incorporation of Assessment Participation Rates

  • The final regulatory guidance requires schools to have a 95% student (and subgroup) participation rate on state assessments but gives states flexibility in the actions taken to improve school participation rates where they fall below the 95% threshold.

That’s the update on what has happened, but what’s next? Let’s consider what the coming year may bring for education under a Trump presidency.

Trump on Education

Of course, we don’t know what a Trump administration will bring, but we do know the platform that he campaigned on, so let’s start there. The one major education theme in Trump’s campaign was a business-like, free-market approach to education reform with school choice at the center of his policy. 

Let’s take a deeper look at four key components of President-elect Donald Trump’s K–12 education policy:

  1. Immediately add an additional federal investment of $20 billion toward school choice. This will be done by reprioritizing existing federal dollars.
  2. Give states the option to allow these funds to follow the student to the public or private school they attend. Distribution of this grant will favor states that have private school choice, magnet schools, and charter laws, encouraging them to participate.
  3. Establish the national goal of providing school choice to every one of the 11 million school-aged children living in poverty.
  4. If the states collectively contribute another $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice, on top of the $20 billion in federal dollars, that could provide $12,000 in school choice funds to every K–12 student who today lives in poverty.

There will certainly be ideological debate as Congress begins shaping policy in the coming months.  Proponents of this free-market approach to education reform will push for policy that promotes charter schools and encourages schools to innovate and compete for students. Other education reformers and civil rights advocates worry about the impact on the most vulnerable populations—children living in poverty, minority students, and children with disabilities or other special needs. There will be plenty of time to debate ideology in the future, but for now, let’s focus on the pragmatic challenges ahead in implementing a Trump education agenda.

Challenges

No matter your personal view on Trump’s education policy, as with any plan for large-scale change, the four key components he has laid out present some clear challenges. Let’s start with the $20 billion proposed for school choice and the statement that it would come from “existing federal dollars.” The current proposed 2017 federal budget for the U.S. Department of Education discretionary spending totals $69.4 billion, with $22.5 billion of that allocated to postsecondary education Federal Pell Grants. This leaves K–12 education with $46.9 billion, of which Trump’s plan would allocate nearly half (43%) to school choice. Many in the education industry believe this $20 billion would come from what are currently the two biggest allocations in the federal education budget, Title I ($15.4 billion) and IDEA ($11.9 billion), which provide services for children in poverty and children with disabilities. While no one has suggested cutting these funds, there is concern that reprioritizing funding for school choice would come at the expense of these programs.

Then, there will be the hurdle of Congress. Trump’s administration can’t simply reallocate $20 billion without Congress amending or replacing ESSA and IDEA. And, even with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, there would still likely be a long battle over issues of ideology. Reauthorization of education legislation is a historically slow process that happens about every five years. The move from NCLB to ESSA took nearly 15 years.

Another challenge in making school choice universally accessible is selecting the type of school choice program to be implemented. While a voucher that allows parents to use public funding for the private or public school of their choosing is the simplest and most direct path to school choice, tax credits and education savings accounts have also been proposed and implemented on a small scale in states like Indiana, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada. Trump’s proposed plan would grant the $20 billion in school choice funding to states and allow them to decide what type of model to implement. This could make tracking and ensuring equity of access for all children even more complicated than today’s federal funding formulas. 

Research on the effectiveness of school choice should be considered. The data shows mixed results with examples of excellent, high-performing charter schools and ones performing far below acceptable levels. In a ten 10-year longitudinal study evaluating student academic outcomes at KIPP schools, a network of public charter schools across the U.S., school choice was found to have a significant positive effect on student outcomes, with the strongest gains in elementary grade levels and lesser gains at the high school level. On the other hand, a study of the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), a school choice program that randomly assigned vouchers to disadvantaged students in low-performing public schools to attend charter schools, found substantially reduced academic performance among the students at charter schools. In this study, negative effects were most highly concentrated in schools with the lowest tuition cost. When considering these disparate results, it is worth noting that KIPP receives federal, state, and local funds in the same manner as public schools, often receiving significantly more per student than the average public school. Thus, it seems fair to say that school choice reforms have both similar and different challenges to success as public school solutions—and money matters.

While some education reform advocates view the Trump policy proposals with optimism, others have numerous questions and concerns. As with all issues as broad and complex as education, it will never be possible to satisfy all parties, and success will always be a moving target. No matter how events unfold, 2017 is sure to be a year of change in education. Amidst it all, the most important thing for educators to remember is to keep doing what they do best—offering thoughtful instruction and caring compassion to students.

Be sure to check back here regularly for up-to-date info on the latest developments in education policy, and join me Friday, February 10th for a live webinar to discuss ESSA implementation, Trump, and what educators can expect in 2017. In the meantime, for more information, check out some of these resources: