In a matter of weeks, the Trump administration has taken a number of steps to weaken the U.S. Department of Education and, so far, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has done little to stop it. First, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the White House reversed guidance issued by the Obama administration protecting the
rights of transgender students. DeVos reportedly resisted but to no avail and she has now embraced the idea. Second, Trump summarily transferred the
White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) from the Department to the White House. Whether this is substantive or symbolic remains to be seen. DeVos’ only role was to misstate the origins of the HBCU’s as
driven by “choice” rather than by segregation. She quickly back-pedaled. Third, preliminary reports about the Trump budget suggest that
education is on the chopping block to help fund a military buildup. Expectations are that the Office for Civil Rights, whose 600 lawyers enforce civil rights laws in schools, could be affected or even transferred wholesale to the Department of Justice, now under the leadership of a former Alabama Senator who
openly opposes enforcement of civil rights laws. Again, DeVos has said nothing about a budget that could cripple her department. Fourth, the House passed a bill negating Obama administration regulations regarding
Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and
Senator Alexander has now proposed a companion bill in the Senate.
DeVos has clearly signaled, and
Senator Alexander has seconded, a hands-off approach from the Department when it comes to reviewing, approving and monitoring state accountability plans.
And this is after just five weeks. There’s also lots of rhetoric about $20 billion in federal tax credits to fund private school scholarships, which will have little to no accountability attached. And there’s talk about reprivatizing student loans, which the Obama administration de-privatized, saving $30 billion, which was plowed back into the federal program providing college grants to low-income students. Several Obama education department alums recently launched a
new website featuring education speeches, press releases, policy documents, photos and videos. It also has a blog for “Education 44” voices to remind people what’s at stake as the reforms of the Obama administration are dismantled by team Trump. Many have suggested that
the real battles ahead are at the state level, but it’s also true that the federal government plays a vital role in
protecting groups of students, from low-income to people of color to students with disabilities to non-gender conforming. Without federal pressure and oversight, many states and districts will take the easy path in educating students with unique needs, whether they be physical, emotional or socio-economic. Either way, our students face a more uncertain future as education has never been more important to their life outcomes. It is hard to see how rapid expansion of vouchers, a free-for-all around accountability, and an indifferent or impotent federal government will somehow improve outcomes for kids. The good news is that lots of us are watching, from civil rights and advocacy groups to educators, reporters and parents. Hell hath no fury like a parent wronged and my second greatest hope is that the parents of America not only hold their schools accountable but also hold this administration accountable for putting their children at risk. My greatest hope is that I’m completely wrong and that somehow the kids of America will be better off after four years of President Trump and Secretary DeVos.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with