What Is the Future of Public Education?

Four agendas beyond school choice the new administration might look to advance

Betsy DeVos stands at a lectern in the foreground of the photo. Donald Trump is clapping behind her.
Mike Segar / Reuters

It’s shaping up to be a contentious year on the education beat, fueled in part by Donald Trump’s upset victory in the presidential election. For starters, in the weeks and months since his election, his campaign call for expanding school choice has sparked widespread discussion and debate. And while federal policy is often a slow-moving train, it wouldn’t be difficult for the president-elect and the GOP-led Congress to change tracks on many key initiatives enacted by the Obama administration, affecting everything from the recent rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act to school-lunch menus and oversight of for-profit colleges.

Predictions have been stacking up not only from pundits but also journalists, including Goldie Blumenstyk of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alyson Klein of Education Week, and NPR’s Claudio Sanchez. Understandably, school choice is on almost everyone’s list as a front-burner issue.

It appears unlikely that President-elect Donald Trump can convince Congress—even a Republican-controlled Congress—to shell out $20 billion for school choice, as he promised during his campaign. But by tapping billionaire voucher-advocate Betsy DeVos for education secretary, Trump is making his priorities known. DeVos has long advocated for publicly funded vouchers as a means of helping families pay for private, parochial, or even home-schooling options. Her track record and tactics, particularly in her home state of Michigan, have raised concerns. While her confirmation by the U.S. Senate is likely given that Democrats are in the minority, it’s probably not going to be a smooth ride. (Her hearing was originally set for Wednesday but was rescheduled for next Tuesday.) The nation’s teachers’ unions are among those strongly opposing DeVos, who has no experience in public education or government beyond her lobbying efforts.

But while school choice is getting plenty of attention as a possible policy development, the U.S. Department of Education is far from a single-issue agency. Here are a few more areas to watch in 2017:

  1. Rules for the Rewrite of the Federal K-12 Law

It’s no secret that the Obama administration’s proposed regulations to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act were a source of intense debate last year, with Republicans in Congress taking aim at key provisions, including rules on school accountability, Title I spending, and even the timeline for states and districts to carry out the new law. At an Education Writers Association post-election event last November, a top aide to Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said the GOP Congress could use power under the Congressional Review Act to wipe away all of these regulations. What happens now is unclear. Education Week has reported that the final regulations provided “greater flexibility” than earlier versions, but that the rules still face “an uncertain future” as Trump takes office. Alexander himself issued a statement saying further action would come after careful review.

  1. School Lunch

Michelle Obama added steel, cement, and stone features to her White House kitchen garden, making it more difficult for the next inhabitants to plow under it. But a key ingredient in her efforts to promote healthier living—stricter nutrition standards for school meals—could be a lot tougher to protect. The next Congress is already scheduled to review the existing rules, and given that it’s Republican-controlled, it’s entirely possible the standards encouraged by the first lady could be scrapped.

The Obama administration’s push to upgrade the requirements for school meals, including cutting sugar and fat and boosting the use of whole grains and organic items, seemed relatively innocuous at its inception. But it became a partisan boondoggle. Lobbyists for the meal suppliers contended the changes were too expensive and kids would resist eating healthier items (kale pizza, anyone?). To some conservative observers, this was also an example of too many (federal) cooks spoiling the broth.

“It’s not up to the government to dictate the personal dietary choices of individuals,” Daren Bakst, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Post in December. “We want these decisions made at the local level. That’s the pro-parent position.”

  1. Campus Climate

The acrimonious election cycle spilled over into the nation’s K-12 schools, as well as college campuses. There were widespread reports of what some advocacy groups termed “The Trump Effect”—an increase in bullying, harassment, vandalism, and even outright violence spurred, critics say, by the president-elect’s own comments and political positions. The targets were often individuals of color, Muslims, and female students. Some colleges have also been fielding requests from Trump supporters who say they also need safe spaces.

While Trump might have been a mitigating factor in some recent events, campus-climate issues were already escalating steadily over the past few years. The Obama administration made addressing campus sexual assault a bigger priority for the nation’s colleges and universities. The U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” advisory that raised the bar for how complaints are adjudicated and reported. All of those policies could be undone with a single pen stroke by the new president. There’s also a case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court about whether transgender students can be required to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender at birth. Ahead of its summer convention, the Republican Party made reversing Obama’s course on transgender rights a plank of its policy platform. Trump’s emissaries have also said that scaling back the reach of the federal Office of Civil Rights, which enforces regulations including school desegregation and Title IX compliance, is also a top priority.

So what will happen now? Some campuses are declaring themselves safe harbors for immigrant students, including those who qualified for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) amnesty program. And teachers will be looking for ways to keep incivility out of the classroom. Also, expect to hear calls for beefing up civics education in schools. And don’t be surprised if the Electoral College itself becomes a popular topic for student debate societies.

  1. For-profits and “Free” College

Another signature policy push of the Obama administration focused on reining in the for-profit college industry that had, in some high-profile cases, left students with little more than shattered dreams and debilitating debt. At the same time, higher-education advocates have pushed to make postsecondary education overall more affordable. (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently seized a plank of the Democratic presidential-campaign platform: making college free to a large number of his state’s students. Whether it will help those most in need has yet to be answered.) While he hasn’t laid out a detailed blueprint for college affordability, Trump said in a September speech that universities with large endowments should be required to spend more on student scholarships or risk losing their tax-exempt status.

Trump has signaled his support for a free-market approach to public education with the nomination of Betsy DeVos. He’s also said the federal government shouldn’t profit from making college loans to students and that there should be an increased role for private lenders. How these issues will play out in actual presidential policy remains to be seen. But it’s worth noting one potential harbinger: For-profit colleges saw their stock prices surge on November 9.

This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.