Washington Update: Where Are the Nation and Education Headed?

Washington Update: Where Are the Nation and Education Headed?

We have entered a new era in education policy, programs and practice. Under President Donald Trump education will be altering its direction and emphasis from the focus of the last six presidents. This change will not be without controversy.

During the last 25 years, there has been a growing general consensus about education change, reform and policy among Republicans and Democrats at the national level… with a few differences. A visible divide began over the federal policy and role during the Obama Administration. It became even more visible during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now entitled Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The divide widened even more during the presidential campaign and the recent Senate confirmation hearing for U.S. Secretary of Education. There seems to be no end to the divide and polarization of strategies for educational change and improvement.

Confirming a New Secretary of Education

On Tuesday, January 31, the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted 12-11, along party lines, and approved the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. To say the process and vote was contentious is an understatement. Democrats were totally dissatisfied with DeVos’ performance before the Committee and with her responses to written questions posed by members after the hearing. Republicans raved about her answers.

Senate Democrats objected to the first vote, arguing that the tally was actually 11-11 because Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) voted by proxy. Ranking member Patty Murray (D-Washington) submitted a motion to overturn Chairman Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tennessee) ruling to uphold the vote, but the motion was denied along party lines. Alexander called another vote to approve DeVos’ nomination with Hatch present and it advanced, 12-11. 

Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as the new U.S. Secretary of Education, but what made it interesting — two Republican senators on the Committee voted to move the nomination to the Senate floor, but then stated they will vote “no” on the Senate floor. This made the vote 50-50. So, for the first time in the history of the cabinet confirmation process, the President of the Senate had to break the tie. Vice President Pence did so, and DeVos was confirmed.

Because of the stark differences of opinion in the HELP Committee, it did have the option of reporting DeVos’ nomination favorably or unfavorably to the full Senate, or to not refer her at all, which would have killed her nomination. Neither of these options was ever considered by the Committee chair.

Secretary DeVos is the most controversial education secretary in the history of the 40-year-old department. The only other nominee to evoke opposition was former Secretary John King. This was more a reaction to Obama Administration actions in executing and implementing education policy under Arne Duncan than towards King.

Every other Secretary of Education nominee has been approved by a voice vote or only received two negative votes during a floor confirmation vote.

Picking a Secretary and the Education Transition

President-elect Trump first asked Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, to be Secretary of Education. Falwell declined, and DeVos was the next choice.

The new White House Advisor on Education is Jason Botel. He has an interesting background and many who know him were surprised that he took the job. You can learn more about him in an article on The 74 website titled “Five Surprising Facts About Jason Botel” (http://goo.gl/imM2aE).

Jim Manning continues to lead the transition at the department even after DeVos’ confirmation. New political employees are working at the department, but it is not clear if they are temporary or permanent employees. You need to remember there is a hiring freeze across the government. This does not include political appointees.

However, no names have surfaced for the key positions in the agency. One reason is the delayed confirmation of the Secretary.

ESSA Regulations

During the campaign, President Trump and congressional Republicans chairing the two education authorizing committees stated that education regulations finalized and promulgated during the last months of the Obama Administration will be blocked and changed to follow the statute. The Committee Leaders have used the Congressional Review Act to negate many of the regulations. Congress has negated two ESSA education regulations so far, which are Accountability and Teacher Preparation. One would not be surprised that several others will face the same fate.
(Under the Congressional Review Act, Congress may pass a resolution of disapproval to prevent, with the full force of the law, a federal agency from implementing a rule or issuing a substantially similar rule without congressional authorization.)

Politico reports that reform-minded state education chiefs are asking DeVos to consider a few things if Congress decides to scrap Obama-era accountability regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act.The group Chiefs for Change penned a letter that says, “we believe that states must meet the letter and spirit of this civil rights law, and we believe that your leadership as secretary will be pivotal in ensuring states do this amidst regulatory uncertainty.”

For one, the chiefs think DeVos should make sure states stick to a provision of the regulations that proved unpopular with the conservatives now trying to undo them: the requirement that states come up with “summative” ratings for schools — basically, an overall score or evaluation. “This is essential for parents to have clear and transparent information on the quality of schools to inform strong choices for their children,” the chiefs write to DeVos. “Our state members implement different approaches to this but all include clear single summative ratings to provide effective information to stakeholders.”
The letter: http://chiefsforchange.org/policy-paper/3956

Implementing ESSA

DeVos stated in a letter dated February 13, 2017, to states that she’s sticking with the April and September deadlines for states to hand in their plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

In a letter recently sent to chief state school officers, DeVos provided clarity on Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) implementation, in light of the actions related to the postponement of the accountability regulations and the Congressional Review Act. The letter emphasizes that states should continue to move forward and that the department will work to ensure that state education leaders have the state and local flexibility that Congress intended. States should continue to follow the timeline for developing and submitting their plans for review and approval, building on the work they have already completed. The department will provide further guidance on the state plan requirements by March 13, 2017.

“States have been working diligently on ESSA plans,” said Secretary DeVos, “and today’s letter makes clear that the Department remains committed to faithfully implementing the law as Congress intended. I remain committed to working alongside local education leaders to ensure they have the flexibility to craft education plans that make the most sense for the parents and students they serve.”

To read the full letter: http://goo.gl/7yCypz

Possible Changes at the Department

DeVos vows to go after employees who would “subvert” her mission. In an interview with conservative news site Townhall, she said she wouldn’t be surprised if there are Education Department employees who would “try to subvert the mission of this organization and this department.” The statement was in response to a question about whether the Obama Administration “populated” the federal agency with sympathizers who will “frustrate whatever the Trump Administration wants to do.” DeVos said she had concerns based on a couple experiences in her first few days, but she also knows there are many “wonderful, sincere, hardworking people.” When it comes to those seeking to “subvert” her mission, however, she said, “Whatever can be done will be done and it will be done swiftly and surely.” Read the interview here: http://goo.gl/ti40Xk

Expect more in the weeks and months to come.

Higher Education

When Jerry Falwell, Jr., said he was not interested in being Secretary, President Trump asked him to head up a White House task force to address reform in higher education. At the present time there is not much detail on the task force.

In light of the mention of this task force, nine directors of centers of higher education at universities across the country have sent Jerry Falwell, Jr., a list of seven “keystone challenges” facing the industry. The leaders include William Tierney at the University of Southern California, Laura Perna at the University of Pennsylvania and Michael A. Olivas at the University of Houston. They urge Falwell to preserve the “three core principles” of U.S. higher education: academic freedom and free inquiry; institutional autonomy; and the distinct but interrelated roles of the federal government, relevant state government and accrediting agencies.

According to the directors, the central challenges facing higher education are: Increasing enrollment and attainment; promoting diversity; making college more affordable (especially for students from low-income families); protecting consumers from fraud; ensuring physical safety for all students (including enforcing Title IX and keeping campuses gun-free); encouraging innovation; and promoting research and development (including by embracing foreign experts).

More information about the Task Force including participants should be forthcoming in the next few months.

Also, Secretary DeVos has yet to tip her hand, but her track record in K–12 may indicate what path she may take. It is not known what her priorities will be for college access and success. Still, DeVos’ positions on K–12 education provide some clues about how she might work with Congress to change higher education.

DeVos believes in markets and opposes regulation. Although the Secretary of Education cannot unilaterally reverse all established regulations, she can instruct her staff to work with the White House and Congress to repeal existing protections. The announcement of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s role in leading a task force on higher education reform also suggests that the White House plans to direct a program of deregulation.

It is most likely that DeVos will not be at the center of the activity. The signals point to her going along with changes that will support the interests of for-profit players in higher education — not putting the interests of students at the top of the agenda. One must also remember that it is very likely that Congress will address the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the coming months.

Politico reports that the Trump Administration has indicated that it will issue a new executive order on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It could go beyond the standard renewal of the White House Initiative on HBCUs issued by every president since Jimmy Carter, according to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF). Taylor has worked with the White House officials drafting the order, including Omarosa Manigault, who is reportedly spearheading the effort. Taylor told Morning Education that officials this week said the order is “imminent.”

HBCU groups are asking for two things: To move the initiative out of the Education Department (and into the White House) and to include an “aspirational goal” for the number of dollars spent at HBCUs through government grants and contracts, Taylor said. Taylor was part of a call earlier this week with White House officials and representatives from the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which is the not-for-profit umbrella organization of the nation’s HBCUs. Taylor’s group, the TMCF, represents the nation’s 47 public and publicly supported HBCUs. He said the groups are all on the same page.

A Change in Approach to Funding Local Schools

Proponents of weighted formulas say their technique is fairer because schools receive more dollars if they have higher-needs kids, such as those who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, English-language learners, or special education students.

Principals, in turn, get the flexibility to determine how to use those extra resources and how to make cuts while still accommodating students’ specific needs.

“Not all students have the same need,” said David Rosenberg, a partner with Education Resource Strategies, which Shelby County Schools (Memphis) hired to analyze whether such a system could work there.

Cities such as Boston, Denver, New York City and Baltimore have adopted similar weighted school-funding formulas. Read the whole article at The 74: http://goo.gl/sw3byx


In the weeks to come we will learn more about the approach Secretary DeVos will be taking and who will be some of the key players in the agency.

Talk about abolishing the Department of Education has increased in recent weeks given Representative Massie’s introduction of legislation to eliminate the agency.

Many insiders thought the press onslaught would end after DeVos was confirmed. I did not. Press pieces continue as news stories, policy papers/reports on specific issues, articles, or opinion pieces and commentaries. If it will continue totally depends on Devos’ and the administration’s efforts to change the approach to the federal role in education.

Definitely it will be an interesting period of time. As was mentioned earlier, announcements, pronouncements and actions will be watched carefully and provide a strong indication of what shoe will drop next. Expect controversy and division, and definitely different in style and approach from what many of us are accustom.

With any new administration and new secretary, it is a wait-and-see game.