Education wasn’t a top issue for President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail. But as he prepares to take office following his victory, one of the areas Trump can have the most immediate impact is in education, and he can largely do it with the stroke of a pen.
While on the campaign trail, Trump’s education rhetoric was mostly limited to a pledge to strengthen local control of education by eliminating Common Core. Ironically, that’s one area where Trump has almost no power. Common Core is not controlled by the federal government and is instead implemented (or repealed) at the state level. The outgoing Obama administration encouraged Common Core’s adoption through the use of stimulus funds and other nudges, but those have all ended now (and in fact were abolished by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act). (RELATED: Trump’s Common Core Promise Can’t Be Met)
But if Trump wants to substantially reduce federal involvement in education, he can do it in another way: By immediately withdrawing a host of executive decrees the Obama administration has used to box in schools around the country.
The Obama administration issued sweeping decrees regarding education, often justifying them with decades-old laws. In 2011, a “Dear Colleague” letter was sent to every college president in the country ordering them to lower their standard of evidence for investigating sexual assault cases — or risk a loss of federal funds. Shortly after, the Obama administration began promoting a much broader definition of “sexual harassment,” implicitly warning schools to take a harder line against alleged harassment or face sanctions.
The Obama administration backed up the “Dear Colleague” letter by launching dozens of Title IX investigations around the country, pressuring schools to radically overhaul their approach to sexual assault. At some schools, such as Harvard University, the resulting reforms have triggered denunciations from faculty who claim the new approaches undermine due process. Other schools have had to deal with lawsuits from students who claim they were railroaded off-campus by administrators eager to show the administration how tough they were. (RELATED: Amherst’s Response To A Rape Lawsuit Is Stunning)
If the new Trump administration publicly withdrew Obama’s letter, they would grant schools greater leeway to investigate sexual assault on their own terms, without having to worry as much about a federal intervention.
The Trump administration could also immediately roll back a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter concerning discipline in K-12 schools. The letter noted that black students are more likely to be suspended and expelled and warned schools that discipline must be administered equally or it could violate federal law. The letter helped fuel the adoption of policies such as Oakland’s ban on suspension for “willful defiance” and a Minneapolis rule requiring the superintendent’s direct permission before a black, Hispanic, or American Indian student could be suspended. The administration’s effort to influence suspension rates has been opposed by many teachers, who argue that it is enabling disruptive behavior in class.
Obama’s May 2016 command that all K-12 public schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice also came via a “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter, which is currently facing a major court challenge, relies on the Departments of Justice and Education equating “gender identity” and “biological sex,” and thus placing transgender rights under the umbrella of Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination. Trump’s administration could immediately roll back this determination and return the question of bathroom designations to individual schools and state governments.