On February 7, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, after Vice President Mike Pence cast an historic tie-breaking vote. Never before has a Vice President broken a tie for a Cabinet nomination, nor has there ever been such a polarizing Education Secretary nominee. If this were a typical presidential transition, the Senate would be deferent to a new president’s Cabinet nominees and the Education Secretary post would traditionally enjoy bipartisan support. But if we’ve learned anything at all this past year, it’s that this election cycle, this transition period, and this administration are anything but typical.
Now that DeVos has been sworn in as the next Education Secretary, what does this mean for education policy? Is more K–12 funding just a pipedream? Will school choice programs proliferate across the U.S.? How will the new administration carry out the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? And how will other policy areas like healthcare and tax reform affect schools? While nothing is certain, we can try to discern possibilities about what’s in store if we examine what Secretary DeVos, President Trump, and Congress have said and done about these issues thus far.
What should K–12 districts, schools, and educators expect over the next four years?
Federal education funding will fall flat or be reduced, depending on the program.
If Congress’ budget priorities from last year are any indication, federal funding for education programs won’t likely see increases anytime soon. Congress’ short-term funding bill passed in December 2016 flat-funded most federal programs through April 28, 2017. Come this spring, President Trump and Republican officials will work together on a budget that funds programs for the remainder of the 2017 federal fiscal year (FY), and a FY2018 budget shortly afterwards. As a reminder, FY2017 federal education dollars comprise the funding streams that states/districts receive for school year (SY) 2017–2018, while FY2018 funds apply to SY2018–2019. The federal dollars that school districts are currently using come from the FY2016 federal budget bill. In other words, the budget that’s expected this spring will determine how much federal funding schools will receive as they roll out ESSA in SY2017–2018.
What are President Trump’s budget priorities? Details are forthcoming, but insiders say the administration likely will follow a Heritage Foundation budget blueprint, which calls for significant cuts across the board. For education, the blueprint suggests reducing funding for the Head Start program by 10% annually until it sunsets in FY2026; expanding access to education savings accounts and removing contribution caps; allowing Title I portability so that funds can follow students to the school of their choice; eliminating redundant ESSA competitive grant programs; and reducing spending on formula grant programs (e.g., Title I and IDEA, Part B grants) by 10%. It is possible that these cuts may apply only to FY2018 if Congress decides to flat-fund programs for the remainder of FY2017 or if Trump decides to forgo a FY2017 budget altogether. However, a clearer picture should emerge once the Senate votes to confirm Trump’s nominee for White House Office of Management and Budget Director, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC).
As for school choice programs, it won’t be surprising to see new legislation that supports vouchers and scholarships for schools that fall under federal jurisdiction (e.g., Washington, D.C., Bureau of Indian Education, and military schools), but DeVos cannot force voucher programs on states if they do not want them. And for the record, she told senators that she would not mandate them from the Department of Education (ED) if she were confirmed as Secretary. In follow-up questions after DeVos’ confirmation hearing, she said, “To be clear, I do not and will not advocate for any federal mandates requiring vouchers. States should determine the mechanism of choice, if any.” However, DeVos can still use her political clout to back Congressional efforts that promote school choice programs. For instance, she can back and rally support for a Title I portability amendment to ESSA that could pass Congress if she and other Republicans were to garner enough support.
The Department of Education’s role will decrease as power shifts back to states under ESSA.
One reason DeVos was confirmed as Education Secretary was because Republicans believe DeVos will work with them to honor Congressional intent for ESSA and help shift classroom control back into the hands of state and district education leaders. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who helped draft ESSA and also supports DeVos, said at a National School Boards Association event that states should “assume that the U.S. Department of Education will say yes” to their ESSA accountability plans with DeVos at the helm. Alexander told state and school board attendees, “You have a president and an education secretary who do not believe in a national school board. They believe in you…. They want you to make those decisions.” In addition, the senator said that K–12 leaders should assume the same schedule for states to submit their accountability plans to ED still stands, even if Congress will try to roll back many of the Obama administration’s prescriptive guidance and regulations for those plans. States may submit their plans to ED on April 3, 2017 or September 18, 2017 for review.
As for how much the department’s size and influence will decrease, the jury is still out on that one. President Trump and many Congressional Republicans believe that ED should have a much smaller role (if any) in education policy, with many trying to dismantle the agency altogether. In fact, as soon as DeVos was confirmed, House Republicans introduced a bill to abolish ED by December 31, 2018. However improbable that would be, eliminating ED isn’t legally impossible, as Business Insider notes. “Trump does indeed have the constitutional ability to shutter the department for good, assuming he has the support of Congress,” but that would be quite an endeavor, since Democrats would have to jump onboard to pass it.
Although the Affordable Care Act is on the chopping block, its future is still unclear.
Republican rhetoric to repeal and replace the Obama Administration’s landmark healthcare law has ramped up significantly since President Trump moved into the Oval Office, but GOP members have yet to coalesce around one plan. POLITICO reports that although House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to pass a repeal plan by March or April, sources say the process “is in its early stages and could still change. It’s still unclear whether a repeal-replace bill would get enough support to pass—or how quickly.” Even President Trump admitted getting rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may take longer than expected, perhaps even until 2018. Until the GOP has a replacement plan set in stone and can actually pass it through Congress, employers must remain in compliance with the ACA law until further notice. ASBO International is currently updating its healthcare reform guidance resources to help school business officials navigate ACA compliance under the new administration, so be on the lookout for new resources on asbointl.org and the Global School Business Network, asbointl.org/Network.
One hiccup for Republicans trying to repeal the ACA is Medicaid reform. POLITICO notes that “Medicaid is proving to be the most complex piece of a replace plan in the repeal bill,” since conservatives want to refinance the program to reduce federal spending on entitlements. (The program has consumed about 9.5% of federal spending and 15% of state budgets in recent years.) But to refinance Medicaid, Republicans are considering overhauling the program by “imposing spending caps tied to the number of enrollees in a state,” called “per-capita caps,” or by turning it into a block grant program that provides fixed funding to states. Either option would effectively cut program funding by up to 30%, which will disproportionately affect low-income children and students with disabilities who rely on access to school-based Medicaid services. ASBO International administered a joint survey with two other education organizations to assess how Medicaid reform would affect school district budgets and student health services. The survey compiled answers from nearly 1,000 school business officials and other K–12 leaders, who said that reduced funding would jeopardize school districts’ ability to provide high-quality health services to Medicaid-eligible students and to comply with requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. More survey findings are available in the full report, “Cutting Medicaid: A Prescription to Hurt the Neediest Kids.”
While the political and economic climate for K–12 schools may be uncertain, the new administration has been fairly forthright about its positions on education funding, the role of the Department of Education, and healthcare reform. School business officials and other education leaders would be wise to pay attention to the events unfolding in Washington, D.C., so that when the time arises they can be informed and effective advocates for their students. One way to stay informed is to leverage ASBO International’s Legislative Resources at asbointl.org/Legislative. As always, ASBO International is here to provide the information and resources you need to effectively lead your school district.