National Press Club

Newsmaker panel sees regulatory rollback for education

November 15, 2016 | By Jean Gossman |

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Although education was "far from a top-tier" 2016 campaign issue, stakeholders should anticipate Trump administration efforts to scale back the U.S. Department of Education, a leading education advocate warned during a National Press Club Newsmaker event on Nov. 14.

Action is also likely on the Higher Education Act, overdue for reauthorization, and on K-12 school choice, said Caroline Hendrie, executive director of the Education Writers Association during a Newsmaker forum Monday.

Panelists noted the names that have already floated for education secretary include

  • Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.);
  • Tony Bennett, former Florida commissioner of education and former Indiana superintendent of public instruction;
  • and Ben Carson, a Republican primaries candidate and current Trump adviser.

The new GOP administration favors less federal education involvement and more state control, and will be unlikely to rely on regulation or executive orders toward its goals, an Obama-era practice strongly denounced by Republicans.

As Hendrie pointed out, the current Republican-controlled Congress reacted to what it considered Obama’s overreach and made sure that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) constrained congressional and executive branch action on K-12 standards and practice and left overhauls to the states.

Nevertheless, panelists generally agreed ESSA offers a good example of congressional bipartisan cooperation, shepherded to passage by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

The pair, whom American Council on Education Senior Vice President Terry Hartle, dubbed "throwback legislators" for their shared spirit of cooperation, could face a breakup of sorts. Hartle noted that it is still unclear whether Murray will continue as top Democrat on the HELP panel, or whether Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will assume the post.

Whoever replaces Murray, David Cleary, Sen. Alexander’s chief of staff, anticipates a "natural return" to a legislative approach to federal education policy instead of executive orders.

Teacher-quality regulations are likely "to be overturned pretty quickly," and the Education Department Office for Civil Rights "does need to be reined in," Cleary said. On the other hand, the 2004 version of the Individuals with Disabilities Act is “holding up pretty well.”

In other likely K-12 developments, panelists also agreed that charter school programs would probably fare well in the new administration, given President-elect Trump's $20 billion campaign proposal to expand school choice.

But lack of "full unanimity" on school choice among Republican senators means "full [public and private] school choice will be a battle," said Vic Klatt of the Penn Hill Group. Still, expanded choice implementation has "a better chance than we've had in a long time."

Funding choice programs at the campaign-promised $20 billion level "will be an interesting challenge" for the new administration, Klatt added.

Eliminating the Education Department is actually probably "very low on the radar screen" for the Trump team, according to Hartle.

“Killing [a cabinet] agency is a huge lift,” and the Trump team would instead probably try “to trim the sails” at the department, Hartle added.