Our democratic system was designed with checks and balances, but this year as Donald Trump’s presidential term begins, he and his secretary of education will likely be working with a very sympathetic Congress. With our executive and legislative branches both dominated by conservative Republican majorities, there will be few checks and balances.
When President-elect Trump nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), the Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, indicated his strong support: “Betsy DeVos is an excellent choice. The Senate’s education committee will move swiftly in January to consider her nomination. Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children. As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities.” Alexander has long been a supporter of states’ rights in public education; he led the development of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which curtails the role of the Secretary of Education to dictate policy to the states.
There is another area in which Betsy DeVos and Lamar Alexander agree. Alexander tried to make federal vouchers—the diversion of tax dollars for students to carry as tuition to private and parochial schools—part of the new Every Student Succeeds Act. He was unable to muster enough support in Congress to get federal vouchers inserted into the bill. We’ll have to watch what happens now that he and President-elect Trump and Trump’s nominee for secretary of education share, as a federal priority, the establishment of a school voucher program.
What about the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee? John Kline (R-Minnesota), the current chair, did not run for re-election in November. He is slated to be replaced by Virginia Foxx, a congresswoman from Banner Elk, North Carolina. Here is how Kimberly Hefling describes Foxx for POLITICO: “Virginia Foxx pulled herself up by her own bootstraps and wants every American child to be able to do the same. As the 73-year-old GOP lawmaker and former community college president is poised to assume the leadership of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, she plans to help deliver on that idea…. Foxx, who boasts she was ‘tea party before the tea party started,’ is blunt about her agenda…. She is a strong supporter of school choice as President-elect Donald Trump rolls out his $20 billion school choice plan emphasizing vouchers, and she expects to have an ally in Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos.”
Hefling quotes Foxx: “I’m going to push to diminish the role of the federal government in everything it’s in that isn’t in the Constitution. That’s education, health care. All the things that the federal government does that it should not be doing. I’m happy to diminish its role.” She continues: “I definitely don’t think the Department of Education has any business doing all the things that it’s doing. But I don’t think you do it overnight. I think you have to devolve it over time.”
One program Hefling describes Foxx as willing to target is the federal Title I civil rights program designed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The program, perpetually underfunded, has provided extra federal dollars for public schools that serve concentrations of children and/or a high number of children living in poverty Heffling explains that Foxx blames Title I because, “we haven’t changed reading levels one bit. Not one bit. They are the same as they were when we started putting out that money in 1965. Something’s wrong with the system.”
Heffling adds that Foxx questions the Department of Education’s student loans to help poorer students with college tuition: “That’s not the function of the federal government.” And she wants to eliminate provisions established during the Obama administration to regulate for-profit colleges.
Foxx would also like to reduce the role of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which is described by Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week: “The office for civil rights provides enforcement for and implements regulations governing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination, and other federal laws.” Ujifusa explains that the role of the Office of Civil Rights has already been undermined by a severe funding shortage, dictated by Congressional budget cuts, at a time when complaints have quickly increased. “Federal funding for the department’s office for civil rights is $107 million in fiscal 2016, out of a total Education Department budget of $68.1 billion, or about .15 percent of the overall budget… One consequence is a growing backlog of unresolved civil rights complaints…. The number of cases pending for review for more than 180 days… grew from 315 at the end of fiscal 2009 to 1,311 at the end of fiscal 2015.
Ujifusa concludes: “Given these numbers, it will be interesting to see how the flow of complaints to the office for civil rights will change under a Trump administration, and how a Trump administration’s approach to these civil rights issues will impact caseloads, budgets, and other issues.”