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For a president whose 2016 campaign said very little about K-12 education issues and in fact suggested the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, Donald Trump’s education policies may have lasting impacts on where children are educated, how federal funding is allocated and how education-related civil rights are interpreted and enforced.
Here’s a look back at a few of the major K-12 changes under the Trump administration and their significance, according to education experts who have monitored the presidency closely.
Expanding school choice
The Trump administration has been the most school choice-friendly administration in history, said John Schilling, president of American Federation for Children, which advocates for the rights of families to send their children to private, charter, virtual or home schools, in an email.
Indeed, Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has consistently and widely voiced support for school choice. Alliance over the issue developed into a congressional proposal to establish a $5 billion federal tax credit to pay for scholarships for special needs services, tutoring, non-public school tuition, pre-K and workforce training.
Additionally, the administration’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expanded the use of 529 accounts for K-12 tuition payments. By equalizing the tax treatment of K-12 and higher-education savings, the change advanced school choice without increasing direct federal intervention in education, said Lindsey Burke in an email. Burke is the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Although the federal tax credit legislation did not elevate to a vote, a similar initiative has been included in a COVID-19 education stimulus proposal, and supporters hope it could soon prevail in Congress.
Schilling also said that though the administration was not successful in trying to ensure that equitable services in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act would be equitably distributed to all non-public schools, “what the pandemic has definitely proved is that our K-12 system is in desperate need of greater flexibility and choice for families with school-aged children.”
Julia Martin, legislative director at Brustein & Manasevit, a non-partisan law firm specializing in education law, said recent court decisions in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017) and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) may open the door for the administration to support the application of religious-affiliated schools to apply for public charter school status. “They seem primed to push the envelope on this,” Martin said.
Opponents of using public funding for private school tuition, however, said private schools are not accountable to taxpayers and are not required to follow certain federal education laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“We are always concerned whenever any school discriminates against a child or their family or their community, and when that discrimination is subsidized by federal taxpayer dollars, it is not only unacceptable, it is also illegal,” said Liz King, director of education equity programs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Limiting funding, regulation
Although school choice programs have gained increased attention and funding since Trump took office, other major sections of the education fiscal plan have shrunken or been level-funded. Moves to downsize or consolidate are based on the desire to limit the federal role in education policy making and oversight. For example, the administration’s FY 2019 budget request proposed a 5% reduction in spending on programs managed by the department, and its FY 2018 budget had gone even further, requesting a 13% cut in the education budget.
The FY 2021 proposal is attempting an 8.4% reduction below FY 2020 appropriations. Some of the savings would come from grouping several grant programs, including Title I, into one block grant.
Burke said the administration has “set an important rhetorical marker that, to reduce federal intervention in education, Washington must be willing to cut education spending.”
Some proposed cuts, however, have received pushback, such as when the administration suggested eliminating funding for the Special Olympics three years in a row. Congress ultimately voted to keep funding for the school and community-based program that promotes the social participation of people with disabilities.
The administration’s efforts to decrease what it said was federal overreach by rescinding Obama-era guidance had mixed reactions. For example, the withdrawal of several 2014 discipline-related guidance documents drew criticism from some education administrative groups because they said the guidance’s recommendations for alternatives to exclusionary punishments is helpful for reducing racial disparities in discipline.
Others, however, say the 2014 guidance was flawed and made schools less safe. Max Eden, an education policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said the Obama guidance wrongly attempted to set national policy to individual school or classroom situations. He also said that discipline-related discrimination investigations were rigged because they could only be closed after the school district agreed to adopt the Obama administration’s preferred discipline policies.
"Actually, [the Obama-era] policy destabilized classrooms and hurt students — especially students of color — and they were right to rescind it,” Eden said.
Altering civil rights approaches
The Trump administration also took the local-knows-best approach when it came to students’ civil and due process rights. The department rescinded a 2016 Dear Colleague letter that said schools should treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations. The Trump administration challenged the previous administration’s position and its consistency with the “express language of Title IX.”
The result was the administration’s view that gender-accommodating policies may be in and of themselves a violation of Title IX, Martin said. "The needle swung broadly in the other direction" from the Obama administration, she said. It is still an issue local school systems wrestle with, Martin said.
Under the Trump presidency, the department updated the Title IX rule regarding sexual harassment, which the administration said strengthened the due process rights of both victims and their alleged harassers, as well as held schools more accountable for reporting and investigating incidences of assault
“We can and must continue to fight sexual misconduct in our nation's schools, and this rule makes certain that fight continues,” said DeVos in a statement when the rule was released in May. Critics said the rule is weak on protecting victims of sexual harassment and questioned why the administration was implementing a major rule while schools contend with the pandemic.
In 2018, the department updated its case processing manual for Office of Civil Rights investigations. The changes aimed to clear a backlog of investigations. It also limited investigations that reviewed patterns of discrimination unless the facts showed a need for that analysis.
Additionally, the administration also tried to delay a 2016 rule requiring schools to use standard methodology when determining racial disparities in special education identifications, placements and discipline practices. The administration said it wanted time to study the rule, which it believed would lead to more disparities because it would cause schools to use artificial quotas to avoid corrective action.
Several states implemented the rule anyway, and its original timeline was reinstated when a District Court judge ruled the department had violated the Administrative Procedure Act by delaying the regulation.
Regarding special education students, the department developed a host of resources to help schools prevent the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion.
Civil rights advocates, however, say overall, the department has done very little to protect the rights of students. “Frankly, it’s been a parade of horribles for students of all ages and it’s been an agenda of discrimination and exclusion,” said King.