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Obama, Trump, and education policy in US federalism

In just a few weeks, Joseph R. Biden Jr will take his oath as the 46th President of the United States. Like his predecessors in recent decades, Biden intends to use executive and administrative actions to pursue his policy agenda. In public education, a policy domain for which states assume constitutional responsibility, administrative presidency faces the forces of federalism. The presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump offered contrasting lessons on the exercise of presidential power in a system of decentralized policymaking. While Obama broadened the equity agenda and strengthened federal oversight on state roles, Trump used executive tools to promote state policy authority, diminish federal direction on civil rights, and expand private school choice.

Shift in federal-state relationship

Obama was actively engaged in education policy. He granted waivers to over 90% of states on meeting proficiency goals under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); created multiple financial incentives for states to adopt the Common Core of academic standards and to improve teacher quality; and guided states on intervention strategies to turn around the lowest performing schools. The Obama presidency purposefully used administrative power to address the nation’s challenge of inequality in education.

Trump was ready to scale back on Obama’s engagement in education. Trump’s unilateral action faced particularly favorable political conditions during the first two years of the administration when the Republican Party had control over both houses of Congress and about 60% of the states. The Trump administration adopted a deferential approach to the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act. Guided by Trump’s executive order, the Republican-controlled Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Obama-era rules on the states’ accountability plans. Granting states significant flexibility created uncertainties on state actions to address educational equity. Trump’s deferential approach enabled significant state variation in selecting accountability standards, performance timeline, and school improvement strategies.

Federal role in equity

Historically, equity has been a key justification for federal involvement in K-12 education. Throughout his two terms, President Obama used administrative action to elevate the nation’s attention to racial/ethnic, income, gender, and sexual orientation inequity in schools. Obama’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the US Department of Education conducted extensive monitoring of civil rights violations related to gender discrimination (Title IX), the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) students, as well as students with disabilities and other needs. Obama established an interagency task force to address complex challenges that African-American children and youth faced, including violence, an achievement gap, chronic absenteeism, and poor school quality. To improve schools for Native Americans on reservations, Obama supported tribal self-governance, promoted early access to integrated services, and strengthened teacher recruitment and retention.

The Trump administration scaled back investigations into civil rights violations and shifted away from Obama’s focus on systemic barriers in public schools and universities. Trump’s OCR revised the guidebook on investigation by removing the procedures to be used in establishing systemic bias. Starting in February 2020, OCR granted state flexibility and regulatory relief in administering civil rights issues. Consequently, the pace of case closures and dismissals was much faster than that of the Obama years, which had required signoffs from DC headquarters for case closures.

The Trump administration’s reversal on civil rights enforcement also affected issues pertaining to racial/ethnic discrimination in school disciplinary actions. Trump’s Department of Justice and the Department of Education jointly issued a Dear Colleague Letter notifying schools of their withdrawal of the policy guidance that the Obama administration had issued on nondiscriminatory school discipline in 2014. The Trump administration justified its action on grounds that “states and local school districts play the primary role in establishing educational policy.” The decision triggered sharp opposition from Democratic lawmakers and civil rights organizations. California, New Hampshire, and several states responded to the weakening of federal support by bolstering their own protections for students with disabilities.

Private school choice

Trump aimed to scale up his school choice initiatives with a large infusion of federal funds. He made this promise during the 2016 campaign, pledging $20 billion in federal funding. In his first appearance before a joint session of Congress in February 2017, Trump proposed using federal funding for private school choice. Even though Trump’s proposal did not receive Congressional support, his administration took actions to promote school choice across states.

The Trump administration moved to ease the administrative burdens of states to support school choice and services for private school students. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos joined Republican lawmakers in championing legislation that would allow states to provide individual and corporate donors dollar-for-dollar tax credits for contributing to scholarship programs that help families pay private-school tuition. Clearly, Trump’s agenda to promote private school choice aligned with initiatives adopted by the Republican leadership in several states. Florida, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and North Carolina allocated state and other funds to establish private school scholarships. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, for example, supported students who previously attended public schools that experienced a significant enrollment decline. South Carolina offered an example of a major state initiative that would have involved millions of federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Actto support students to attend private schools. However, the state court in South Carolina prohibited Governor Henry McMaster from implementing the CARES-funded Safe Access to Flexible Education program to enroll 5,000 students to attend private and religious schools.

Federalism endures

Beginning on 20 January 2021, the Biden presidency will shift away from Trump’s agenda and restore an active federal role. To be sure, the dynamics of federalism endures. While Republicans control both the executive and the legislative branches in 24 states, Democrats dominate in 15 states in 2021. Divided governance prevails in the remaining 11 states. Clearly, the governing landscape across states will continue to define the federal-state relationship as the president prioritizes administrative action to pursue equity and quality goals in public education.

Featured image by Motion Studios

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