Will Trump Overhaul Public Education?

From privatization to civil rights, his Department of Education could transform the American system.

Betsy DeVos, president-elect Donald Trump and vice president-ele
From left, Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump, and Vice President–elect Mike Pence on Nov. 19 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last week, President-elect Donald Trump announced a strongly ideological pick for secretary of education: Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos. Unlike the current secretary, John King, or the previous one, Arne Duncan, DeVos has never led a state education department or school district. As an advocate and donor, she has been  committed to the concept of school choice, not necessarily as a driver of improved student achievement—she has supported for-profit and virtual charter schools, as well as private school vouchers, all of which have disappointing academic track records—but to choice as a good in and of itself. DeVos is also a social conservative. She and her husband, Amway heir Dick DeVos, have funded anti–gay marriage and anti–affirmative action efforts. If she is confirmed, which is likely, she will inherit a department that spends $68 billion per year.

As I wrote last week, DeVos will certainly try to direct federal education dollars toward vouchers that parents could use at any school, private or public. However, the work of the Department of Education is much broader than that, encompassing a number of areas, from school discipline to campus sexual assault to pre-K, where DeVos has essentially no record. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint at least seven other high-level officials to the Department of Education, who in turn will hire dozens of political appointees. What could happen to President Obama’s legacy on education, which emphasized civil rights and school accountability? What can the Trump administration do on its own, and what would require action from Congress? The most radical outcome would be a federal government that vastly increases profit-making opportunities in public education while declining to investigate discrimination in schools. But what is actually likely to happen?

To game out the possibilities, I spoke to two experts with deep knowledge of how federal education policy is crafted. Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center-right education think tank, and from 2001 to 2005 he worked for the Department of Education under President George W. Bush. Andrew Rotherham is the founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm, and worked for President Bill Clinton from 1999 to 2000 as a special assistant for domestic policy. They both said that many of Obama’s education priorities could be easily reversed, since they were accomplished through executive regulation and letters of guidance, not legislation. And even if Trump and DeVos don’t take decisive action to overturn Obama regulations, those measures could end up withering on the vine. (“You can ignore some regulations,” Rotherham says. “That happens a fair amount. One option is atrophy.”) Here, policy area by policy area, are some of the possibilities:

The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights: This office drove President Obama’s efforts on campus sexual assault and student discipline reform, and it is here where we can expect to see the biggest and fastest policy shift. During the campaign, Trump surrogate Carl Paladino, a New York Republican and former Buffalo school board member, singled out the Office for Civil Rights for ridicule, calling it “self-perpetuating absolute nonsense.” Washington Republicans have discussed shutting the office down or moving it to another agency.

Obama used a broad interpretation of Title IX, a federal anti–gender discrimination law, to investigate how more than 200 colleges handled accusations of sexual assault. The Department of Education directed colleges to use a lower standard of proof—“preponderance of the evidence” instead of “clear and convincing evidence”—when determining whether a student was guilty of sexual misconduct.

Congressional Republicans and even some liberals concerned with the rights of the accused have opposed Obama’s efforts, and there is no evidence that Trump or DeVos disagrees with these critics. The new administration could await the outcome of a pending federal lawsuit that could invalidate Obama’s approach. A more proactive option would be for DeVos to write a letter of guidance to universities, telling them that Obama’s interpretation of Title IX no longer applies.

Rotherham says he’ll be watching how aggressively the administration deals with LGBTQ issues in education, such as whether transgender students can use the bathroom of their choice, a right Obama sought to protect. If Trump takes early executive action to limit transgender rights, it could mean Vice President–elect Mike Pence and other social conservatives in the administration are wielding a lot of influence. “We’ll see what faction is really driving things,” Rotherham says. “It’s been a war between the real ideologues and other folks.”

The Obama administration was deeply concerned about the overuse of punitive school discipline strategies, such as suspensions, expulsions, and physical restraint. In 2012, for the first time, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights published national data that showed how widespread these tactics are and how children of color are disproportionately punished. Under a principle known as disparate impact theory, the department told school districts that racial inequities in discipline would be interpreted as potential evidence of discrimination and could trigger federal investigations and lawsuits.

“Almost surely, the new administration will just undo that,” Petrilli says. Trump ran as a law-and-order candidate, a stance usually associated with support for more punitive school discipline.

Under Obama, the Department of Education also worked to collect new data on bullying, including how often religious minorities and LGBTQ students are targeted. It is unlikely Trump and DeVos would emphasize such efforts. “There’s a statutory requirement to do the civil rights data collection, but the details are up to the administration,” according to Petrilli.

While DeVos and Trump may not shut down the Office for Civil Rights, it is easy to imagine it becoming a much quieter place over the next four years.

Career and technical education: On the campaign trail, Trump said, “Vocational training is a great thing” and lamented, “We don’t do it anymore.” He promised to “expand vocational and technical education” in his first 100 days in office. DeVos’ husband, Dick DeVos, is the founder of a charter high school whose theme is careers in the aviation industry.

Here there is a rare opportunity for bipartisan action, uniting Congress and the executive branch. The Perkins Act provides more than $1 billion annually to career and technical education programs, and it is due to be reauthorized. Both Democrats and Republicans are eager to pass a bill. “I think there is a lot of potential for this to get done quickly,” Petrilli says. “It would be a nice sign of the ability to govern.”

Vouchers: To enact his $20 billion school voucher plan, Trump would need to find an enormous pool of federal money. He’s never said where the funds would come from, but existing Republican voucher proposals show $15 billion of it flowing, annually, from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Vouchers are a unifying issue across the Republican Party. They are beloved by home-schoolers, who could use vouchers to pay for online classes; businesses that own for-profit schools, which could accept vouchers as tuition; and religious conservatives, who want government funding for parochial education. DeVos is affiliated with all three camps.

Still, there is a major political obstacle to Trump’s plan. Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2015 and did not include vouchers. The law is now called the Every Student Succeeds Act and represents a rare bipartisan achievement of President Obama’s second term. Getting to consensus was a long slog for lawmakers. To enact Trump’s voucher plan at the scale he envisions, Congress would need to crack open ESSA and relitigate it, a process for which there may be little appetite, even among Republicans.

There are two other options for securing a smaller tranche of federal funding for vouchers. The first would be to ask Congress to appropriate new money for the effort, through new legislation. The second would be for Congress to pass a law providing tax credits that families could use to pay for private school tuition or home-schooling costs, a strategy Pence used as governor of Indiana. At least one other member of Trump’s inner circle seems to favor tax credits as a social policy approach. The Ivanka Trump child care proposal was based on income tax credits, which would disproportionately help the middle-class and affluent. “Tax credits for education are not a good way to help the poor,” Rotherham says; many families in poverty do not pay income taxes, so they would not be eligible.

School segregation: Social science shows that children learn more in racially and socio-economically integrated classrooms. After downplaying the problem of school segregation for its entire first term and much of its second term, the Obama administration changed course this year. The president requested funding from Congress for a school desegregation program called Stronger Together. (This was also Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. Congress did not cooperate.) In addition, Secretary of Education King announced that when considering applications for federal grants, the Department of Education would weigh whether schools and districts had plans to diversify their classrooms.

Conservatives tend to talk about desegregation as social engineering, and the Trump administration will almost definitely end the department’s nascent overtures in this area. How? “They could just not make similar grants going forward,” Petrilli says.

Pre-K: Under President Obama, the federal government used stimulus and ESSA funding to help states expand access to public pre-K and improve its quality. Still, between one-third and one-half of American 4-year-olds remain unenrolled in preschool. Trump’s transition website promises to “advance policies” such as “high-quality early childhood.” As governor of Indiana, Pence expanded state-funded preschool, while DeVos has essentially no record on the issue.

For the Trump administration to increase access to pre-K, Congress would need to appropriate new money. But Washington Republicans, chief among them Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, are skeptical and have proposed deep cuts to Head Start, the only existing federal pre-K program.

“You can certainly find Republicans at the state level who are supportive of expanding pre-K, but it costs serious money, and it’s going to be hard to find serious new money with the current Congress,” Petrilli says.

Higher education: President Obama racked up several huge victories on college policy. In 2010, he signed a law that reduced the role of for-profit middlemen in the federal student loan business, allowing the government to offer low-interest loans directly to students. That legislation also increased loan forgiveness and income-based repayment for borrowers. Separately, through his “gainful employment” regulations, Obama shut down hundreds of predatory for-profit colleges whose alumni had a track record of failure on the job market.

Congressional Republicans see these changes as unwanted intrusions on the free market. Congress would need to pass a new law to repeal the 2010 loan reforms, and although Trump campaigned promising to ease student loan burdens, it’s difficult to imagine him caring much about the role of the financial industry in educational lending. Likewise, the new executive branch, led by the founder of Trump University, could draft laxer regulations governing for-profit colleges, renewing their access to federal funds.

“It seems like a safe bet that Betsy DeVos will have a very different attitude toward for-profit colleges,” Petrilli says—after all, in K-12 education, she has sought to expand the role of for-profit schools. “Will she be hawkish on quality control? We just don’t know.”