An Uncertain Political Landscape Looms Over Ed. Policy at ASU/GSV

Managing Editor

Salt Lake City

The ASU/GSV Summit draws attendees from the K-12 and postsecondary worlds—and political uncertainty pervades both ends of the education landscape, in the estimation of some of this conference’s attendees.

Among the biggest questions on their minds: How will states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, and how much leeway will the U.S. Department of Education grant them? Will the Trump administration get the deep cuts it wants to make to the U.S. Department of Education? And how soon will Congress reauthorize the Higher Education Act—which affects K-12 in myriad ways?

All of those questions emerged during a panel on Tuesday here, titled “TrumpED: How will #45 Change the Learning and Work Landscape?” which brought together conference attendees from both major parties.

One of the panelists, Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat and a candidate for governor, said Trump’s recent budget proposal for fiscal 2018 should deeply trouble educators, particularly because of the impact it could have on vulnerable student populations.

That budget calls for a reduction of $9 billion, or 13 percent, from $68 billion today, with deep cuts to programs in professional development and after-school care, as well as the elimination or reduction of 20 different programs. It also proposes rechanneling $1 billion in Title I funding for disadvantaged students into school choice, which critics say will pave the way to private school vouchers.

Many of the targeted programs help needy students and families, and “the biggest risk is that we see a retreat from all of those populations,” Johnston said. If those cuts go through, he asked, “what does the department become?”

“Where are those protections going to come from if not from leadership at the federal level?” Johnston asked.

But Lauren Maddox, a principal at the Podesta Group, a Washington, D.C. government relations and public affairs firm, said many fears about Trump’s spending plan have been exaggerated.

His plan for deep cuts, as written, will go nowhere in Congress, she said. Federal lawmakers will ultimately approve a spending plan to their liking, which is unlikely to make the kind of far-reaching reductions the president wants, said Maddox, who was an advisor to Trump’s transition team.

Trump’s budget might be “informative” and “insightful,” in outlining his priorities, but “there’s going to be a lot of give and take” with lawmakers, Maddox said.

Meanwhile, Congress appears to be moving toward a rewrite of the Higher Education Act, which was last reauthorized in 2008.

A broad set of issues will be under the microscope, including whether to reconsider a litany of regulations affecting colleges; policy affecting Pell Grants; options for increasing the amount of information given to parents about colleges’ performance; and possibilities for overhauling financial-aid policies.

Overall, higher education is going through a period of “massive transformation,” and the landscape of institutions is “more diverse than ever,” said panelist Ben Wallerstein, the co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors, a D.C. consulting and communications firm.

The steady change in the postsecondary world makes the work of lawmakers much more difficult, he said, as “things are still shaking out in the market.”

Maddox, a one-time aide to Capitol Hill Republicans, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, agreed, saying her sense from talking to congressional staffers is that there’s wariness of creating new policy as “all of this dramatic change is taking place.”

For an overview of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and its implications for K-12, see my colleague Andrew Ujifusa’s story outlining potential changes.

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