Education Policy Update: Out with the Old and In with the New

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By Meghan Whittaker, Policy and Advocacy Manager, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)

Volume 6, Issue 3
September 2017

We are nearly through the first year of the new administration and we’ve seen a great deal of change when it comes to education policy.

Out with the old…

You may remember that back in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations on issues of accountability and assessment to help states better implement the law, and for the last several months, states have been meeting with stakeholders, receiving input, and designing their plans.

Yet, two important actions taken this year will change the course of ESSA implementation. First, Congress quickly repealed some of the ESSA regulations using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), including the regulations that provided clarity on how states should design their accountability systems—one of the core components of ESSA.

Despite this, advocates should know that:

  1. The law is still in force, and the requirements that states have to meet under the law have not changed.
  2. It is more important than ever for state advocates to make their voices heard and ensure that states are doing right by our students

    It is more important than ever for state advocates to make their voices heard and ensure that states are doing right by our students.

Second, the U.S. Department of Education released a new template that states can use to submit their ESSA plans. Even though the law has a clear requirement that states must consult with parents and other stakeholders in creating their plans, the template makes no mention of this requirement. In fact, the Department of Education does not even require that states open their plans up for public comment.

In April, the first round of states submitted their plans to the Department of Education and are now beginning to get feedback. The final deadline for all states to submit their plans is in September. So far, the plans have gotten mixed reviews from the Department of Education and from advocates. Some plans contain provisions that will support students with disabilities and underserved groups of students well, while others fall far short in that area. This means that now, more than ever, the advocacy community and parents, educators, and others who care about our kids need to be vigilant.

NCLD and Understood have jointly created a toolkit to help parents get the information that they need to understand ESSA, organize with other parents, and work with educators and policymakers during state and school district ESSA planning. Together, we can monitor states’ ESSA plans to make sure that they consider the achievement of all students.

…And in with the new

Some of these changes are being driven by the new Secretary of Education.

In February, Elisabeth (“Betsy”) DeVos—a philanthropist and champion of school-choice efforts in Michigan—stepped into her new position as the U.S. Secretary of Education. Her confirmation was strongly opposed by many education and disability advocacy groups, largely due to her lack of experience working in our public school system. However, the disability community was extremely disappointed when, in response to being asked whether schools should have to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), DeVos answered that states should be allowed to decide. 

Nonetheless, Ms. DeVos has taken the helm of the department, and one of the administration’s biggest priorities seems to be school choice. While a specific program or mechanism for offering more school choice has not yet been proposed, there are clear indicators that the administration is moving in this direction. And it seems likely that the administration will begin to explore how a tax shelter can offer an incentive for corporations and other donors to put money into a scholarship fund that will pay for students to attend private schools.

The first glimpses of this theme can be seen in President Trump’s budget proposal, officially released in May.

Cuts for many, but benefits for whom

The administration released a proposed budget for FY18, which has one clear goal—reduce the federal deficit by cutting ineffective programs.

Which programs are effective? That depends on whom you ask. The budget offers no plan for requiring evidence of effectiveness in making decisions about which programs to cut.

But to be clear, the budget does no favors for students or teachers. While it maintains an overall level of spending for IDEA, there aren’t enough details to know which parts of IDEA may have been cut and which may have been given a boost, and the fact of the matter is that IDEA has not been adequately funded for decades, and schools will continue to be required to serve more and more students with fewer and fewer resources.

Furthermore, the budget eliminates many programs wholesale and fails to replace them with effective alternatives.

  • It cuts all funding for Title II of ESSA, which provides training and support for teachers to better instruct and serve all students.
  • It cuts all funding for 21st-Century Community Learning Centers, which provide before- and after-school programs that offer academic and enrichment opportunities in the arts, music, recreation, and more.
  • It cuts more than 20 other programs—including the LEARN literacy program—that improve public schools and help our students.

What would be established in place of these important, schoolwide programs? Two new funding streams:

  • A voucher program for students to attend private schools with public money.
  • A system that would allow $1 billion of money in Title I of ESSA—a program intended to help low-income schools and schools that serve a high number of low-income students—to pay for students to attend the public schools of their choice, allowing more advantaged schools to benefit from Title I money.

Many disability groups are leery of voucher programs. While they provide some financial relief for families who are already paying for students to attend private schools, they typically don’t cover the whole cost of tuition at a private school, and therefore cannot be used by low-income families. Furthermore, these programs often strip students of their rights under IDEA as a condition of accepting a voucher and can lead to separate educational systems—one for students with disabilities and one for those without. Be sure to read more about how these programs work and what they mean for students with learning disabilities.

But that’s not all…

In July, as Congress was in the throes of a rewrite of the healthcare reform bill, the disability and education communities rallied to protect Medicaid. This program provides $4 billion annually to schools to serve low-income students and students with disabilities. Though the proposals were defeated, we’ll continue to watch these efforts and advocate to protect students across the country who benefit from Medicaid. You can learn more about why Medicaid matters in school and be ready to help us protect this program in the future!

And finally, just last week, Congress passed a budget deal that will fund the government through early December. Over the next few months, the House and Senate will continue to work out funding levels for every agency and program for the rest of FY 2018. So far, it appears that Congress is prioritizing education programs and has not yet signaled an intent to follow the President’s proposed budget. But advocates will continue to monitor what’s happening and be sure our students’ needs are at the forefront of these discussions.

So stay involved with us!

While much has happened in a few short months, this won’t be the end of it! All these issues still have a long way to go before we have resolutions or know the full impact of the impending legislation. So stay tuned for more Examiner updates, and be sure to sign-up to receive alerts from NCLD when we need advocates to take action!

Meghan Whittaker is the policy and advocacy manager at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). She is part of the public policy and advocacy team that implements NCLD’s legislative strategy in Washington, DC, and advances government policies that support the success of individuals with learning and attention issues in school, at work, and in life. She supports advocacy campaigns and engages with NCLD’s grassroots network of committed parents.



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