Education on the Ballot: A Trump-DeVos Policy Review

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When Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education in November of 2016, it led to the most contentious confirmation process ever faced by a candidate for the position. Civil rights groups, education advocates, and Congressional Democrats strenuously objected, pointing to her complete absence of public education experience, her deeply entrenched personal connections to for-profit education companies, and her poor public record on individual rights, particularly for LGBTQ groups.

These concerns spilled over into the first ever deadlocked Senate vote for a Secretary of Education. DeVos was consequently confirmed through a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President of the United States. When Mike Pence cast the deciding vote to tilt the scales on a 50-50 split, DeVos began an inevitably embattled tenure.

Faced with protests, security concerns, and judicial challenges, the DeVos Department of Education has nonetheless plundered forward on policies best characterized by deregulation and disenfranchisement. All evidence suggests the controversy surrounding her confirmation was merited. The very groups that voiced opposition to her nomination — students, educators, and civil rights advocates — have been on the receiving end of the Secretary’s most damaging initiatives.

Today, with the midterm elections just around the corner, we reflect on two years of demolition under the Trump-DeVos banner. We’ll do our best to touch on a few of the biggest changes in education policy over the last two years while looking ahead at some of the initiatives that will be shaped by the outcome of this election cycle. Some of these issues may be addressed directly by your candidate’s platform. Other issues may simply fall in line with party politics. In either instance, we want you to have a basic understanding of the education issues at stake in this election, including:

What follows is a look at education policy orientation under the current Republican leadership with consideration to how the midterm elections could either reinforce or offset this orientation.

  The Midterm Elections

On Tuesday, November 6th, voters will take part in one of the most important midterm elections in recent memory. Rarely has an electorate been more ideologically divided at the two year mark of an administration. And for groups that have been either targeted or marginalized by Trump’s policies — Hispanics, Immigrants, African Americans, Women, LGBTQ, etc. — the stakes are high. As the following discussion will show, education policy is a perfect demonstration of this marginalization, and of just how high the stakes really are.

Widespread Republican victory in November, or even simple retention of its current advantage, would embolden the Republican Party to carry out Donald Trump’s agenda without reservation. A sweep of Democratic victories could turn the balance of Congress, empower local progressives, and form a meaningful counterpoint to Trump’s policy orientation. These outcomes would be true in the scope of education policy as well.

But, of course, neither Donald Trump nor Betsy DeVos are on the ballot. So how can you voice your approval or displeasure with the current path of education in the U.S.?

Congressional Races

Most House and Senate races are pretty straightforward. Rarely have we been more divided along party lines as a nation and a government. To state things simply, if you approve of the current policy direction of our nation, vote Republican. If you disapprove, vote Democratic. As the DeVos confirmation hearing and most other consequential legislative or personnel matters have proven, the nation’s chief governing bodies are divided almost strictly, incurably, and amorally along party lines (Brett Kavanaugh, I’m glaring in your direction). Midterm votes will contribute directly to the balance of power along those lines. Regardless of whether you accept or despise our two party system, ideological alignment has become deeply entrenched on two sides of a single aisle.

If you have any kind of feeling at all about that balance of power in Congress, and the capacity of Congress to either carry out the president’s agenda or check the power of the executive branch which includes Ms. DeVos, cast your vote in this midterm election. The stakes are high, both for education, and more generally, for the future of this country.

State and Local Races

Votes at the state and local level are also highly consequential during this heated midterm cycle. Both Donald Trump and Secretary DeVos have advocated for a return of educational autonomy to states and localities. This greater concentration of authority in local hands means that state-level leadership will likely have a stronger hand in shaping education policy in the near-term.

With that in mind, below is a quick guide, taken wholesale from the Education Commission of the States, outlining the executive and education seats that are up for grabs on November 6th:

With razor thin polling margins separating candidates in many states and localities throughout the U.S., your vote could have a very real impact on future policy in your hometown and school district, as well as on national legislation.

If you haven’t already, Register to Vote.

And to find your local polling station, start by locating your State or Local Election Office Website.

  What’s At Stake in this Election?

The Department of Education and the White House share the view that state education boards should operate free from most federal constraints. This makes the races outlined above especially consequential. As DeVos and Trump push for self-determination at the state level, state and local educational leaders will have a particularly strong sway over future policy orientation for students everywhere.

Countless states are on their way to the implementation of their respective plans under the The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA authorizes individual state curriculum plans that accord with certain federal requirements. In the simplest terms, states that elect incumbent parties to governorships and related educational posts will likely see continuity in their existing plans. States who elect challengers to these same seats will likely see an overhaul, or at least a compromise, to existing plans. Every state is in a different phase of the implementation process. Consult your local candidates for their respective positions on your state’s ESSA plan.

Outside of ESSA, federal funding and school choice remain defining issues in this approaching election. This is almost certainly one reason for the historic surge in the number of educators and administrators seeking offices at both the state congressional and executive levels in this election cycle. According to the Washington Post, “Hundreds of teachers and retired educators — an unprecedented number — are running for political office on the local, state and federal levels. There are hundreds of teachers — most of them Democrats — running for state legislative seats alone.”

The reasons are numerous, and not the least of them is the almost universal sense among public school educators that Betsy DeVos is outwardly hostile toward public school and its mission. Evidence in her policy orientation bears this out, especially at the K-12 level. Frustrated by years of shrinking budgets and resource shortages — not invented by, but most certainly intensified by the DeVos-Trump agenda — educators are moving aggressively into the political sphere.

At the national level, educational issues have been overshadowed by the gaudy displays of partisan entrenchment in both houses of Congress, and by the tabloid-friendly outlandishness of Donald Trump’s discourse and behavior. But at the local level, funding and school choice issues are center-stage for many voters.

Betsy DeVos has acted on her belief that the Department of Education should be scaled down in its operational capacity and that “school choice” vouchers should be used to avail federal dollars to private educational institutions. Most educators have perceived these initiatives as a threat to funding for already cash-strapped public schools.

Trump’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 would make good on both of these DeVos priorities, promising a $7.1 billion cut, or 10.5% decrease from the 2017 enacted level, bringing the total budget for the Department of Education down to $59.9 billion.

Simultaneously, as the Department of Education grapples with the practical realities of this dramatic decrease in funding and operational capacity, the budget promises a windfall for private schools. The proposed budget would invest “$1.1 billion in school choice programs to expand the range of high-quality public and private school options for students, putting more decision-making power in the hands of parents and families.”

This is, however, a mere glimpse into the Trump Administration’s true ambition. The budget calls this initial investment a “down payment” on the way to an annual federal investment of $20 billion — for a total of an estimated $100 billion when including matching State and local funds — in school choice funding.

For teachers and educators who have warned about a shift in priorities away from funding for public schools, Trump’s proposed budget brings hard evidence to these concerns. That said, the 2019 budget is still very much in a state of flux. As Congress pushes through emergency spending bills to keep the government running, there is little doubt that the outcomes of the coming election will either transform this budget, or make it into a reality.

When that day comes, we’ll dive into the minutiae of the proposed budget as it relates to education. For now, make note that either a status quo or a widening of the margin of power for Republicans will mean a full realization of the Betsy DeVos wishlist (i.e. massive spending cuts for public education, surging federal dollars for private institutions, and exemptions from federal law for religious institutions).

The elections on November 6th will have a direct bearing on how the debate over budget priorities plays out. So in the very simplest of terms, whatever your politics, state-level Democratic victories are the only bulwark against a greater than ten-percent reduction in the operational capacity of the Department of Education.

The number of educational issues implicated by the 2019 Budget Proposal are too numerous to outline here, and will be widely subjected to congressional debate and revision before all is said and done. But at a time when the U.S. economy is booming, the austerity measures being imposed upon the Department of Education would carry over into every area of K-12 and higher education.

Again, if you have a vested interest in the educational direction of your state or locality, or in the opportunities afforded to your family and community, election day is one way to fight for that interest.

If you haven’t already, Register to Vote.

And to find your local polling station, start by locating your State or Local Election Office Website.

  What Are the Key Issues?

OK. We’re done harassing you about voting. Now, let’s make sure that we’re clear on the issues. If we could sum up the DeVos era in one word, it would be “demolition.”

This is a tenure dedicated to deregulation, elimination of guidelines, reduction in operational scale for important federal offices, and an unvarnished rollback of every Obama era initiative that DeVos can get her hands around. In the simplest of terms, if education is a top issue for you, how you vote in the midterm elections will largely come down to your feelings on this deregulatory thrust. But before we get into our feelings, let’s talk facts. Below are the policy changes and what they actually mean.

 The PROSPER ACT — Dead On Arrival?

In December of 2017, House Education Committee chair, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) proposed this massive reauthorization package for the Higher Education Act of 1965. Ultimately, the legislation stalled in Congress over the summer of 2018. But, like Trump's budget reauthorization, the PROSPER Act has not yet been declared dead.

Among its many implications, at least in its initial form, are the deregulation of for-profit schools, deregulation of accreditation agencies, and the streamlining of the student loan process. The bill also contains some less contentious priorities, including the advancement of competency based programs and the improvement of opioid addiction support services.

We reached out to Representative Foxx to learn more about the status and future expectations for the bill. We were unable to reach her office for comment, but we can say with certainty that the PROSPER Act will remain in limbo until the 116th Congress takes office in January of 2019. At that point, the political makeup of the House of Representatives will likely determine whether or not the PROSPER Act gains traction, and if so, what form it will ultimately take.

In the meantime, check out our coverage of the Act at the time of its introduction to the House education committee for a look at what this mixed-bag legislation might include.

 Defending the rights of For-Profit Colleges

Noted above, part of the PROSPER Act is the legislative reversal of an array of Obama-era regulations aimed at curbing corruption, abuse and exploitation perpetrated by for-profit colleges. (For a look at what a corrupt and exploitive for-profit college looks like, check out the $25 million settlement relating to the now-defunct Trump University.)

Like Trump, Secretary DeVos also has more than a passing interest in for-profit colleges. We spoke on the subject with Dr. Joan D. Mandle, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology Emerita at Colgate University and Executive Director of Democracy Matters. Democracy Matters is a non-partisan nonprofit student organization that works on pro-democracy issues including voting rights and money in politics.

Dr. Mandle noted that Secretary DeVos raises alarms on both fronts, pointing out that DeVos “is completely unqualified with respect to educational policy and was appointed only because her family has been one of the biggest donors to Donald Trump and the Republican Party. A small elite of super-wealthy campaign donors influences policy in many realms, including education — focusing on their own interests rather than those of the majority of Americans and the society as a whole.”

Indeed, the paperwork that DeVos provided to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics at the time of her appointment reveals personal and family fortunes amassed in part through private education companies, for-profit colleges, and investments in companies that engage in aggressive student loan collection tactics.

These entanglements appear to shape both her sympathies and priorities as the Department’s head.

To wit, while the DeVos-led Department of Education has not yet succeeded in rolling back all Obama era measures against for-profit abuses, it has done its best to avoid implementing these measures. For instance, the Obama administration enacted the “borrower defense” rule following the collapse and bankruptcy of Corinthian College in 2015. The new rule is meant to prohibit for-profit colleges like Corinthian and Trump University from forcing students to waive their rights either to sue or join class action suits as a condition of enrollment.

The Department of Education refused to enforce the measure. Just this past September, following a lawsuit by 19 states and the District of Columbia, a Washington federal judge ruled against DeVos, finding that the Department of Education had wrongfully delayed implementation of the Borrower Defense rule and that this delay was “procedurally improper.”

This judicial decision is only a single front, however, in a much broader battle. Again, the DeVos hallmark of demolition rears its head here. In May of 2018, the DeVos administration quietly dismantled the unit of the Department of Education charged with investigating fraud by for-profits. Once a twelve person unit, three-quarters of its staff was simply reassigned, while the three agents left behind were reduced to administrative tasks. The New York Times reported in May that the personnel decisions effectively ended any meaningful Department-level investigation into for-profit abuses.

While the outcome of this election will not likely alter the current course of the Department, Republican victories at the congressional levels would open the pathway to even wider legislative deregulation of for-profits, whereas a Democratic tilt could provide a firewall against this deregulation, and perhaps even a legislative push for a reverse of these operational changes at the Department.

 Gutting the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is yet another section of the Department that is under attack at the personnel level. As Trump looks for ways to shrink the Department, it appears the OCR would shoulder a large part of that burden. The office charged with handling affirmative action cases and discrimination claims is slated to have its already-barebones budget and operational capacity slashed even further. The plan is to eliminate 40 positions from the OCR’s staff of 570 employees. Those left behind would handle a caseload that topped out at more than 16,700 complaints in 2016.

We reached out to the Office of Civil Rights to find out how these changes were likely to impact the mission of the OCR. A Press Officer responded to our initial inquiry, but ultimately declined to answer any specific questions about the expected impact of these cuts, particularly for students victimized by discrimination.

Areas of concern that we would like to have learned more about include the recent changes to the OCR’s manual for handling civil rights complaints. Among these changes, the most consequential is the total removal of the phrase “systematic” from the manual, which seems to imply that the Department is no longer interested in understanding, investigating or even acknowledging the existence of systematic discrimination. Other changes include the elimination of the appeals process for rejected discrimination claims, and the mass dismissal of cases filed by so-called “frequent flyers.”

This mass dismissal has already been borne through the OCR’s Candace Jackson. The oft-criticized head of the office has seen to the mass dismissal of literally thousands of claims and grievances without due process under the auspices of operational efficiency. This is a direct and deliberate manifestation of the de-emphasis on the OCR and its mission.

Dr. Mandle of Democracy Matters pointed out that “Cuts in any aspects of the Department of Education are a disaster because their funding was never enough to begin with to effectively carry out their mission… Cutting funding to the civil rights division specifically means a lack of enforcement of the affirmative action laws that have afforded students of color equal opportunity for a good education. We already have a huge and growing gap between the rich and poor in this country, and cutting civil rights enforcement and other aspects of the Department of Education will only increase that dangerous division.”

As a matter of budgetary discretion, this is one area where election results could have a direct impact. A continued or increased Republican edge in Congress would strengthen Trump’s push to pass the current budget proposal, whereas a Democratic tide could force major changes to the budget’s current text.

For a more detailed look at the DeVos Administration’s efforts to reduce the scale of the OCR, check out our coverage from last November.

 Marginalization of the LGBTQ Community

In addition to the hostility that DeVos has shown toward Civil Rights in general, the Secretary has reserved some of her most pointed hostility for the LGBTQ community. In 2017, DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidelines protecting the rights of transgender students to use school bathrooms conforming with their gender identity. This was followed by an announcement dictating that the Department would not investigate any future complaints filed by transgender students regarding bathroom bans.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) issued a statement through the ACLU in spring of 2018, noting that these announcements were not merely disciminatory, but also unconstitutional. He pointed out that “Rescinding someone’s rights, which have been upheld in court, on the basis of their gender identity is wrong.”

This refusal has only been matched by a deafening silence on issues of concern to the LGBTQ community. We spoke on the subject with best-selling author, LGBTQ rights pioneer and executive director of Campus Pride, Shane Windmeyer. Based out of Charlotte with offices in California and Washington, DC, and partnerships with over 1400 campuses nationwide, Campus Pride works directly with students and college communities to confront discrimination and create learning environments that are safer and more inclusive.

Windmeyer noted that the DeVos tenure has been marked by “No support or visibility for LGBTQ safety or inclusion on college campuses.” From her explicit discrimination against trans students to her prioritization of “religious freedom” as a license for schools to discriminate against and exclude members of the LGBTQ community, Windmeyer notes that “Devos has done everything she can to tear apart anything that was inclusive that the Obama administration was doing.”

In fact, said Windmeyer, DeVos and Trump have been uniquely hostile to LGBTQ causes, “even compared to other conservative administrations, where at least there was a modicum of respect.”

Windmeyer draws particular attention to the Department’s prioritization of “religious freedom” over inclusiveness, an issue that overlaps with concerns over the DeVos “school choice” philosophy. This is because DeVos — in both her posture toward religious private institutions and the LGBTQ community — seems intent on protecting federal funding for institutions that discriminate under the banner of religious freedom.

As part of its mission, Windmeyer says Campus Pride works to ensure that college is “a place where every student feels welcome and supported. Regardless of who you are, you deserve a safe space to learn and live and grow.”

How would Campus Pride grade Betsy on protecting that interest?

“Failure,” Windmeyer. said. “If I could go lower, I would.”

Inclusiveness is always on the table during the election cycle. We advise you to observe closely the views of your candidates at the state and local level. As the Department of Education works to pass its civil rights responsibilities back to individual states, the orientation of your local leaders will have a big determination on the support that LGBTQ members in your respective communities experience.

 Title IX Policy Reshaping

Once again, in the category of deregulation, one of the DeVos administration’s most telling rollbacks was the rescinding of an Obama-era “Dear Colleague” letter aimed at bringing greater accountability to colleges for rampant acts of sexual assault. The Title IX guidelines established more meaningful investigative procedures and institutional responsibilities around allegations.

There is overwhelming statistical evidence that unreported sexual assault is a major public health issue, and one that is epidemic on college campuses. According to Women’s Health, one in five women in college experiences sexual assault. The Obama “Dear Colleague” letter was prompted by statistical evidence that the risk of sexual assault on campus is inordinately high.

The DeVos rollbacks would immediately scale back the investigative responsibilities of college campuses, afford greater defense to the accused, and narrow the definition of sexual assault. These decisions were made in the interest of protecting those falsely accused from undeserved consequences.

That said, little statistical evidence exists to suggest that there is a patterned issue of false allegations. A study from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) notes that prior studies show a high variance of between 2 and 10% cases of “false reporting,” but also finds that “Research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault. Misconceptions about false reporting rates have direct, negative consequences and can contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults.” (See Brett Kavanaugh hearings for more.)

Indeed, the new policy orientation threatens only to deepen the likelihood of unreported incident. Dr. Mandle of Democracy Matters observed that the effect of the changing guidelines “will be to discourage women and men who are assaulted to come forward and report these instances. It will have a chilling effect on those who have experienced abuse. Regulations were implemented to protect students and to send a message that sexual assault is not to be tolerated.”

This could be a key election issue, at least insofar as it contributes to the broader perception that the Trump Administration has been hostile toward claims of sexual assault and toward survivors of sexual violence. Stemming at least in part from the allegations brought against the president himself, and magnified by the deeply troubling Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, this is an issue that may bring countless women voters to the polls.

While it’s not clear what impact the vote would have on the current status of Title IX guidelines on sexual assault, the rescinding of guidelines certainly fits with a pattern of executive hostility toward the victims of sexual assault, and empathy for the accused. This is a pattern that may turn out female voters in record numbers to reject candidates aligned with Trump and DeVos.

Read here for a more detailed look at the policy impact of the Title IX rollbacks.

 Eliminating Guidelines for IDEA

In October of 2017, the Department of Education slashed 72 guidelines from the manual on how to manage the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA). While DeVos claimed that this was done to reduce redundancies and outdated guidelines, disabilities advocates saw a different agenda.

DeVos has stated in no uncertain terms that she prefers to let states address matters of discrimination and inclusion internally, without intrusion from the federal government. In fact, during her confirmation hearing, she revealed her relative ignorance of her responsibilities to federal law by declining to advocate for federal enforcement of IDEA at the individual state level. DeVos argued — erroneously, with respect to the legal obligations dictated by IDEA — that disability discrimination and accommodation were matters best left to the states themselves. The newly shredded guidelines underscore her promise to shrink federal oversight and vest more autonomy in the hands of states. This approach seems to also dovetail with the shrinking capacity of the OCR.

Once again, as states gain more power to determine whether they will or will not adhere to federal laws prohibiting discrimination, how local elections shake out may well shape the accommodations and inclusiveness that students with disabilities either enjoy or are deprived of in the coming years.

Click here for our coverage of these slashed guidelines and what it might mean for students with disabilities.

 School Safety

In the wake of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a newly energized student movement emerged. A growing population of millennials, many of them first time voters, have demanded action on gun regulations and school safety issues.

While both DeVos and Trump have voiced support for the objectively absurd idea of arming teachers and placing more guns in classrooms, young activists have seen little legislative traction on this issue. Just as women have an opportunity in this election to force change by rejecting the current policy direction, so too do millennials have an opportunity to voice their concerns at the ballot box. For a basic compass on the issue, Republican leaders at every level have been vocally resistant to changes in America’s gun laws, whereas many Democratic candidates have pushed for sensible gun regulations.

How the issue of school safety and gun control will play out at the ballots remains to be seen, but young voters, and students in particular, could be a big presence on election day.

Of course, there’s more...a lot more, including the ever-shifting fate of undocumented students and DACA recipients, the continuing explosion of college tuition rates, and the various indignities suffered daily by the nation’s hard-working teachers and educators. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot riding on this midterm election, both in terms of education policy, and on the broader direction that this nation is heading in the coming years.

The midterm election cycle is only ever one of two things: a rebuke of the current presidential administration and its policies, or a coalescence around these policies. The same will be true of your perspective on education policy. The electorate is as ideologically and culturally divided as it has ever been. The issues outlined above should help to explain why.

If you’re a conservative, much of this will seem positive. If you’re a progressive, much of this will seem nightmarish. If you fall somewhere in between, hopefully our policy review helps you make some key decisions on November 6th.

If you haven’t already, Register to Vote.

And to find your local polling station, start by locating your State or Local Election Office Website.

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