2017 could be a year of chaos in education.
In contrast to previous years, when the stakes in education were easy to see at the outset, what will happen this year is almost anybody’s guess. Unsurprisingly, this uncertainty is all thanks to presidential victor Donald Trump. Had former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won, education would be easy to gauge; she almost certainly would have continued President Barack Obama’s policies with a big push for debt-free college.
But Trump didn’t speak much about education on the campaign trail, and when he did, his plans were lacking in detail. Still, some reasoned predictions can be made about what will happen in the coming year.
1. A Major School Choice Push
Trump didn’t focus much on education during his presidential campaign, but when he finally released more detailed proposals late in his campaign, school choice was a central focus. Trump said his administration would invest $20 billion in a program that would distribute grants to the states for the sake of expanding and improving school choice around the country. (RELATED: Trump Promises $20 Billion School Choice Offensive)
Trump signaled his administration is primed to push school choice with his selection of Betsy DeVos as his nominee for secretary of education. DeVos has been campaigning for charter schools and school vouchers for many years, and figures to bring that same focus to the Department of Education if confirmed.
But whether Trump’s promises will translate into action this year remains to be seen. Trump’s promised plan has a price tag of $20 billion. With Trump also interested in building a wall on the Mexican border, cutting taxes, and potentially pursuing a major infrastructure investment plan, he may not be willing to expend effort lobbying Congress for a K-12 push.
Even if he doesn’t directly act, though, school choice crusaders may be emboldened at the state level. Trump almost certainly will never threaten states with a lawsuit for pursuing school vouchers (something Obama occasionally did), and by appointing conservative judges, he may make such programs more resistant to private suits as well.
2. The End of the Campus Title IX Crusade?
While campaigning, Trump promised to repeal all of Obama’s executive orders early in his administration. If he keeps this promise, one place where it will have a big effect is on American college campuses, where the Obama administration has used its executive authority to pressure schools to crack down on sexual assault, which is allegedly an epidemic on campus. (RELATED: Are One In Five Women Really Assaulted In College?)
The centerpiece of Obama’s policy is the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which ordered schools to dramatically lower their burden of proof for sexual assault accusations or else lose all federal funding. The letter, combined with a wave of investigations by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), made college administrators deeply nervous and drove them to adopt new and more aggressive policies. If Trump retracts the Dear Colleague letter and slows OCR’s investigative pace, the crusade against campus sexual assault could lose much of its steam.
3. Transgender Bathrooms
Another place where Trump’s pledge to roll back Obama’s agenda could bear fruit is on the contentious matter of transgender individuals using school bathrooms and locker rooms.
North Carolina’s HB2 remains as controversial as ever, with North Carolina Republicans refusing to modify the law in a special session held just before the close of the year. Meanwhile, at the federal level, a court challenge is still pending against last May’s joint letter by the Justice and Education Departments decreeing that all public schools must allow students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
Trump, of course, could abandon Obama’s bathroom decree, but that wouldn’t eliminate the issue. Even before Obama’s decree, several students had sued in federal court, claiming they had a right to the bathroom of their choosing. The issue may ultimately be resolved by the Supreme Court, where Trump’s Supreme Court pick (or picks) could end up playing a decisive role.
4. The End of Common Core?
While on the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly promised to “get rid of” Common Core, the set of math and reading standards used by more than 40 states for the past five years. Despite heavy grassroots opposition, the standards have proven resilient, with many efforts at repeal turning into far more restrained measures that simply rebrand or lightly tweak the standards.
Despite Trump’s promises, it’s not clear what he will actually do to alter Common Core’s trajectory. With 2015’s passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government is currently barred from dictating to the states on school standards. However, the president’s support may embolden Republican state legislators, who control most of the country’s statehouses, to pursue Common Core’s replacement with increased vigor. On the other hand, Trump’s new status as the Core’s highest-profile critic could strengthen it by encouraging Trump’s many enemies to defend it.
5. Throwing Out Michelle’s Lunch Program
Outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature issue, school nutrition, could be on the chopping block in the coming year. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 bolstered nutrition requirements for school lunches across the country, and required schools to serve more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to students. The law came up for renewal in 2015, but Republicans in Congress have repeatedly avoided doing so, since any effort to weaken the law would almost certainly be vetoed by Obama.
Now, with a friendlier president in office, Republicans may seize their chance to gut Michelle’s signature issue. Rep. Robert Aderholt, a Republican who has served on Trump’s agriculture team, has long wanted to slash Michelle’s regulations on school nutrition, accusing them of being “activist-driven.”
The wild card is Trump himself, who has said nothing on the topic of school lunches, though his campaign occasionally blasted the Obama administration for increasing regulations on food.
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