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Federal Education Policy: What to Expect
A primer on presidential transitions, Betsy DeVos, and how federal policy trickles down
Since President-elect Trump nominated Betsy DeVos — a philanthropist and school-choice advocate who has been sharply critical of public schools — to be secretary of education, educators have been speculating how the incoming administration will affect American schools.
To find out more about the transition and what we can expect in the coming months, Usable Knowledge spoke with policy analyst Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and editor-in-chief of Education Next.
Can you talk through what happens in the Department of Education during a presidential transition? Will there be an entirely new staff?
The DOE has about 4,400 employees. Of those, 16 are appointed by the president, while another 145 or so are members of the Senior Executive Service, who also are generally replaced when a new president comes into office. The rest are all career civil servants whose jobs are not tied to a given administration.
- Withdrawal of the Obama Administration’s guidance on school discipline and equity in resources
- A push to expand school choice for low-income students
That said, there’s often an uptick in turnover among career staff when power changes hands. The President-elect has said that he’ll freeze hiring in order to reduce the size of the federal workforce, so it’s possible that some of those who leave won’t be replaced. Also, the political appointees do occupy essentially all of the key policy making roles, so what the career staff actually do in their jobs could change quite a bit.
When can we expect the new team to begin enacting policies?
Changes to policy set within the executive branch can happen very quickly, certainly within 100 days. I’d expect the Trump administration to act immediately to withdraw some of the more controversial guidance documents the Obama administration issued on topics like school discipline and resource allocation, as well as to revisit the regulations it has put forward to govern the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. But broader changes that have been discussed, like a major school choice initiative, would require congressional action and therefore take more time.
What changes can teachers realistically expect in the next few months?
The short answer: Very few. There’s a long distance between the Department of Education and classrooms, and any change in federal regulations would affect teachers only gradually as states and school districts respond.
But there could some important exceptions. For example, I mentioned that the new administration is likely to withdraw guidance from the Obama administration that warned districts that racial disparities in discipline rates would draw scrutiny from the Office of Civil Rights. This guidance has led many districts to reduce their use of suspensions and expulsion and implement alternative discipline approaches. Withdrawing that guidance could slow the pace of change in the area of school discipline, but it would only do so if districts decide to change their approach as the pressure from the federal government recedes.
In the longer term, I think we can expect the Trump administration to take a more hands-off approach to oversight of how states decide their school accountability systems under ESSA. What teachers experience as a result will in turn depend on how states use that flexibility.
You mentioned in a recent EdWeek article that you suspect that a Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would push for reform mainly at the state level. What would that look like?
I would expect DeVos to lean more heavily on cheerleading and perhaps the creation of incentives for states to make changes, as opposed to issuing universal mandates. There’s no question that DeVos has focused her advocacy money and muscle at the state level, which makes me think that she has seen that as the most promising lever for change in American education.
The question, of course, is whether her views on that question evolve once she has some control over federal policy. One of the things I teach in my class on education politics is that there are few principled federalists — that is, people whose views on the appropriate scope of federal power remain the same regardless of who’s in charge in Washington. We’ve already seen a renewed commitment to state and local control on behalf of many Democrats who didn’t share that enthusiasm when the balance of power looked different.
DeVos is a prominent advocate of school choice, specifically voucher programs. Would the Department of Education be able to significantly expand school choice under her leadership?
DeVos is certainly known for her support of various forms of school choice, including vouchers, but there are both practical and political obstacles to promoting private school choice from DC. I do expect the administration to make an effort to act on President-elect Trump’s campaign proposal to devote 20 billion federal dollars to expanding school choice for low-income students, but it’s a bit hard to see a Republican Congress either approving that much new spending or even redirecting existing funds on which districts currently rely.
A more likely scenario could be an effort to reform the tax code to offer tax credits for donations to organizations that provide scholarships to low-income students — an approach that could serve much the same purpose as school vouchers but would not require the creation of a new direct-spending program. At the state level, this approach to expanding private school choice has turned out to be politically successful. And you could see the Trump Administration try to learn from that success and pursue the same thing from Washington. But that kind of proposal would still amount in effect to a substantial increase in federal spending on education, something conservatives have generally opposed.
Are most public schools really in danger of losing funding?
I don’t think public schools need to worry about losing funds. A private school choice program paid for with existing spending would obviously leave less federal aid for public schools, but, as I’ve said, I think that is unlikely for political reasons. And at the end of the day, the federal government accounts for less than ten percent of total spending on education, so any changes would be relatively modest.
More broadly, is the field too polarized to achieve any big reforms? Could change happen?
Well, that certainly remains to be seen. The President-elect has consistently identified education as one of his top domestic policy priorities, but beyond stating that, he devotes most of his speeches and tweets to other issues. I do think you’ll see advocacy for school choice and an attempt to act on the president’s commitment, but even 20 billion dollars only goes so far in a system that serves 50 million students.
The real question is what decisions states make over the next four years. And given the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which places sharp limits on the federal government’s ability to control state decision-making with respect to school accountability systems and other areas, that’s really the same question we would have had regardless of who was elected.
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