The Biggest Education Stories Of 2017 And 2018

Dec 27, 2017
Originally published on December 27, 2017 7:38 am

It's not every year that a new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, becomes a household name, satirized on Saturday Night Live, never mind being the most unpopular member of a historically unpopular cabinet. But we live in interesting times and the nations' schools and colleges are no exception. Here's a look back at the major moments in education this year, and a glimpse of what's to come in 2018.

Civil Rights

A lot of the flash points in our schools coverage this year had to do with civil rights and the experiences of minorities, including special education students and immigrants. Under DeVos, the department reversed many of the Obama administration's uses of the bully pulpit.

  • Secretary DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on transgender rights, and as a result the Supreme Court rejected the case of student Gavin Grimm in Virginia, who sued his school to use the bathroom of his choosing.
  • The department pulled back Obama-era Title IX guidance around sexual assault on campuses, with a new emphasis on the rights of the accused.
  • We covered the winding down of the DACA immigration program and what would become of the DREAMers, many of whom are in high school or college.
  • A March Supreme Court decision, before the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, cheered special education advocates who want higher standards for children with special needs. But as our coverage from Florida and Indiana showed, private schools often don't guarantee that they will serve students with disabilities. In June, Secretary DeVos repeatedly refused, under questioning, to say that she would require these schools not to discriminate.

Age of anxiety, and dislocation

  • More broadly, students say they feel affected by the Trump administration's policies toward immigrants, Muslims and political polarization in general. A commonly cited figure is that about 1 in 4 young students has an immigrant parent.
  • We reported on a survey that 70 percent of teachers said their students are concerned about their families, and that more than half are stressed and anxious over what's in the news.
  • Finally, many students were internally displaced by Hurricane Maria and came to the mainland United States. Others were dislocated by Harvey, Irma and wildfires.

School choice

On the policy front, DeVos and Trump invoked school choice again and again. But we haven't yet seen massive federal policy changes that would lead to more money for charter schools or private schools. Some big states like Florida, Texas and Illinois did pass their own laws that would give charter schools more state and local funding.

In the new tax measure, public school advocates are worried the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction will ultimately make it harder to fund public schools, and especially to fund them more equitably across rich and poor districts. Another provision allows the use of 529 tax-advantaged savings accounts for private school tuition.

Another wrinkle is that a national survey showed a big, and bipartisan, plunge in support for charter schools in 2017.

What's Next?

Now let's turn to what's on our list for 2018.

  • The extended effects of school closures due to natural disasters in Florida, Texas, California and Puerto Rico will continue to be felt this spring and in the coming school year. Considering scientific forecasts of climate change, there is no reason to believe that the pace of disasters will slow. How can schools respond? And beyond these immediate needs, how can schools prepare students for the realities of a changing planet?
  • Over the last year we've seen many for-profit colleges shutting down, merging or selling for a dollar. It will be interesting to see whether this continues despite the friendly regulatory environment from the Department of Education and Republican lawmakers. For example, the department just announced that some students from the shuttered Corinthian Colleges will get only a portion of their money back.
  • Big changes may be coming to student loans, and colleges in general, with the Higher Education Act now in the House. The bill is a long way from becoming law, but right now it includes fewer loan programs, lower limits and an end to forgiveness programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Plus, there is support for quicker, cheaper, career programs focused on job training.
  • And back to civil rights, there is yet another piece of Obama-era guidance that may see a rollback. This one is a 2014 letter from the Departments of Justice and Education about school discipline and race. The Departments instructed schools that they will investigate complaints of discrimination related to discipline policies. Years of research has found that black and Hispanic students are disciplined more harshly than white students, suspended and expelled at higher rates, beginning in preschool. Since the guidance came out, we've been hearing a lot more about alternative approaches to discipline like restorative justice. In recent years 27 states, and, more than 50 of America's largest school districts, have reformed their policies with the intention of reducing suspensions and expulsions. However, the Education Department has said it will delay enforcement of a rule related to this guidance. And, in recent weeks, officials met with critics who say that schools are less safe as a result of the changes in school discipline.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much has the Trump administration really changed public education? A tax bill includes a huge break for parents of private school students. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made several high-profile moves in recent months, and so we're going to talk through all of the results with Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Hi, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Having watched the administration in action for a while now, do you feel you understand their broad goals for education?

KAMENETZ: As soon as Betsy DeVos was appointed, people in the education world kind of knew what the playbook was going to be because she has a long history in Michigan and elsewhere of backing two big areas. Of course, school choice. Everyone's heard her advocacy for private schools, sometimes religious schools and for-profit schools, and, at the same time, kind of a culture war element. And that has to do, with the use of the Education Department as a little bit of a bully pulpit, which really has been its strength over the decades.

INSKEEP: OK. So a couple of things to follow up on there. Let's talk about choice first, which often gets down to money, which schools are receiving federal funds. How much progress has DeVos made in pushing money the way she'd like?

KAMENETZ: Well, until recently we didn't see big massive federal policy changes. There were some things in the budget request that came out earlier this spring that would have directed hundreds of millions of dollars to private schools and charter schools, but that was pretty much ignored by Congress. So it wasn't until this tax bill that just passed that we saw the beginnings of what may be directing more resources toward private schools. And that's something you alluded to at the top, which was the use of 529 Plans, college savings plans, which really are the province of the wealthy. Not many people have that much money to save, but 529 college savings plans can now be used for private schools. On the other side of the ledger, the change in the state and local tax deduction has a lot of public school advocates worried that it's going to be harder to fund public schools, and especially harder to fund them equitably.

INSKEEP: Now, what about the culture war?

KAMENETZ: (Laughter). Well, you know, some would say that, you know, the Obama administration's education department pursued a certain vision, and that was done oftentimes through these dear-colleague letters or guidance. And one of the most high-profile changes of the year was when DeVos walked back the transgender rights guidance, and this had to do with the ability of students to access the bathrooms of their choice.

INSKEEP: The Obama administration offered one opinion to schools, which it couldn't necessarily enforce absolutely, but it gave guidance. And now the Trump administration is giving different guidance?

KAMENETZ: Exactly. And as a result of that, actually, the case of Gavin Grimm was not heard by the Supreme Court because of this change in direction.

INSKEEP: Gavin Grimm. Remind us. That's a student...

KAMENETZ: Gavin Grimm was a student in Virginia who sued the school district for the right to use the bathroom of his gender identity.

INSKEEP: Are there other cases where the Trump administration has spoken out on issues in ways that have influenced public education across the country?

KAMENETZ: Sure. So you know, in the higher education realm, but K-12 as well, we heard a lot about the rollback of sexual assault guidance. That was also coming from the idea that Title 9 covered sexual assault victims. And Betsy DeVos has really pushed for a notion of the rights of the accused and due process rather than just emphasizing the rights of victims, and that has led to a real firestorm.

INSKEEP: Does the education world feel different then after almost a year of the Trump administration because of the things you've just described?

KAMENETZ: I think it does, for a lot of reasons, not just the reasons I've described. But, you know, when you go to schools, we have a very diverse public school population. One figure commonly cited is that 1 in 4 young students has an immigrant parent. And so surveys show, and my reporting shows, that there is a feeling of oftentimes anxiety and especially polarization because of the rhetoric of the Trump administration around minority rights, around civil rights, around immigrants' rights.

INSKEEP: So students, at least some students, are more tense.

KAMENETZ: That's right. We reported on a survey that said 79 percent of teachers nationwide said their kids were concerned about their well-being, and more than half of them were stressed and anxious compared to prior years.

INSKEEP: Anya, thanks very much. Always a pleasure.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.