The year the education system didn’t get dismantled
Education | Despite widespread fear of the Trump administration wrecking crew, much about U.S. schools remained unchanged in 2017
by Leigh Jones
Posted 12/27/17, 01:58 pm
This year’s education news started with a bang, thanks to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Senate confirmation hearings. And she’s still making headlines, mostly because protesters can’t get over having someone critical of the nation’s education system at its helm. But education policy changes still depend on state and local decisions, as this year’s top five stories illustrate.
Education Department lightning rod
Betsy DeVos. Love her or hate her, the new secretary of education indisputably tops this year’s list of the biggest stories in education. When President Donald Trump announced the long-time school choice advocate as his nominee, public school advocates put Chicken Little to shame with their “sky is falling” wails. Senate Democrats mounted a strong campaign against her nomination, which became one of the most divisive for any Cabinet appointee in U.S. history. After two Republican senators vowed to vote against her, Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to push her nomination through. DeVos’ detractors insisted she would dismantle the entire U.S. education system. She probably would, if she could. But she can’t. DeVos has reminded her critics, over and over again, that the federal government’s role in education is limited. She encouraged state-level leaders to come up with innovative solutions to education problems and tried to position the federal government to help, through grants and policy changes. But her hopes of encouraging widespread innovation haven’t materialized.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump pledged $20 billion for school choice initiatives, and DeVos seemed like the perfect champion. But school choice is ending 2017 with a whimper, according to American Enterprise Institute policy expert Nat Malkus. Signs of the effort’s troubled future began to appear during state legislative sessions, when bills to enact education savings accounts (ESAs) took a sound drubbing. ESAs are an upgrade on school vouchers because parents can use them for a variety of expenses, not just private school tuition. But even lawmakers in conservative states, including Texas and Missouri, haven’t bought into the idea. The biggest bright spot for school choice came from a U.S. Supreme Court case that had nothing to do with education. The ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer declared government benefit programs can’t discriminate against religious institutions simply because of their faith. School choice advocates widely interpret that to spell doom for Blaine Amendments, the state laws often used to strike down government-funded choice programs. But the Supreme Court didn’t exactly spell that out, so advocates hope to send a test case the court’s way in the coming year. Even if the high court puts an end to Blaine, choice advocates still have to convince state lawmakers to create new programs, or expand old ones.
I’d like to take out a loan, please
The student loan crisis has been a buzzword (or phrase, to be more precise) for nearly a decade now. But time has not diminished its luster. While Democrats insist government policy should focus on helping more students pay for college, conservatives want to make college more affordable and students more accountable. According to new figures released this year, the federal government now holds $1.34 trillion in outstanding student loans. And some analysts fear the student loan bubble is about to burst. About 35 percent of students with government-subsidized loans are considered subprime, or at high risk for default. There’s also that tricky problem of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which could cost taxpayers billions over the next decade. Republican lawmakers hope to fix that, or at least stanch the bleeding, with next year’s reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Forget loans, let’s make college free!
The idea of free college did not die with Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo picked up the torch earlier this year and launched the nation’s first free four-year degree program. New York already had a generous grant program for students from poor families. But after 22,000 signed up for the new Excelsior Scholarship, the Democratic governor proudly declared that more than half—53 percent—of students in the state’s university system wouldn’t pay a dime to attend classes. As more students enroll over the next few years, the program is expected to cost New York taxpayers $163 million by 2019. Although New York is the only state to make four-year degrees “free,” several states are experimenting with free community college programs. Tennessee is the most conservative, but Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t the only Republican who sees some public benefit from asking taxpayers to foot the bill for higher education. Analysts expect New York to be the first of many states to take up the free tuition cause.
Rethinking the party culture
In February, a Pennsylvania State University freshman pledging a campus fraternity drank too much, fell down some basement steps, and died. The bare facts of Timothy Piazza’s last night seem simple enough, but the sordid details captured by the fraternity’s security cameras revealed a shocking level of debauchery and disregard for human life that finally prompted university administrators to reconsider their hands-off attitude toward college party purveyors. Pennsylvania prosecutors filed charges in what became the biggest hazing case in U.S. history. Sadly, Piazza’s death was not an isolated incident. He was just the first of four Greek-seekers to die this year following pledge-related hazing incidents. (See our reports on student deaths at Louisiana State University, Florida State University, and Texas State University.) The universities where those students died halted activities at all fraternities and sororities, and schools have curtailed individual chapters or events. Will 2017 be remembered as the beginning of the end for Greek life on campus? That probably depends on whether any more pledges die next year.
Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.