With Donald Trump set to enter the Oval Office, Vice President-elect Michael Pence seems likely to shape the federal role in education for the next four years. As a former governor who made school reform a top priority, Pence will interpret the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as a barrier to federal oversight of state and local decisions. Testing will continue but how to respond to test results will be left to the states. The lowest-performing schools will be identified but the federal government will be reluctant to instruct states as to the steps that need to be taken to improve them. Regulations on how districts allocate their own funds to schools that are currently under consideration by Obama’s team will be withdrawn.
Trump’s appointment of a new member of the Supreme Court will constitute his major contribution to education reform. With a conservative replacement for the late Antonin Scalia, the Court will not entertain efforts to overturn two of the late twentieth century’s biggest decisions—Milliken (leaving de facto segregation intact) and Rodriguez (denying constitutional status to equal-funding claims). Yet it may well seek out another opportunity to prevent teachers unions from collecting fees from non-members, an issue that evenly divided the Court this summer.
The Obama Administration’s propensity to legislate “by pen and phone” will give Trump many opportunities to change direction quickly. Letters from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to school district officials, warning them that the prosecutorial weight of the federal government will be employed if they do not justify disparities in discipline rates and resources across racial and ethnic lines, will be withdrawn or simply ignored.
Trump and Pence will probably facilitate a broadening of pre-school education. Providing additional support for parents with young children is too popular with middle-class families to be ignored. But college students should plan to pay for their own education in the years to come. The federal government is not going to backstop their debts.