President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Wednesday that seeks to reduce federal intervention in education. It builds on vows he made during the campaign to dismantle the Common Core State Standards and hand greater control of schools back to states and localities.
But initially, at least, the order doesn’t do much.
The order directs Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to identify examples of federal overreach in her bailiwick, senior Education Department official Rob Goad said on a call with reporters. For the next 300 days, DeVos and a team of department staffers will analyze regulations and guidance to determine whether they legally overstep the department’s authority.
“For too long the federal government has imposed its will on state and local governments. The result has been education that spends more and achieves far, far, far less. My administration has been working to reverse this federal power grab,” Trump said on Wednesday.
It’s not clear what policies Education Department officials will actually finger, and a federal law passed in late 2015 already returns a degree of education power to the states. But some of Trump’s supporters are hoping the administration acts quickly to roll back the federal government’s support of Common Core, as well as Obama-era guidance related to students’ civil rights.
The Common Core standards are a set of education benchmarks that the Obama administration incentivized states to adopt. They were designed to make sure that kids received similar schooling across state lines. Conservatives, however, have rallied against them as an example of federal interference in local schools. During his campaign, Trump repeatedly said he would work to erase them.
Jane Robbins, a senior fellow with the conservative American Principles Project, has long advocated an end to Common Core. Although she has recently been critical of Trump’s seeming abandonment of the issue, she is optimistic about the new executive order.
“I think it’s a very good first step. It indicates to me that all of the encouragement the grassroots have given to President Trump not to abandon his campaign promises on education have had some effect,” Robbins said.
Because Common Core was adopted at the state level, the federal government can’t simply dismantle the system. Many states have been teaching kids under these learning benchmarks for several years now.
As for students’ civil rights, some conservative- and libertarian-leaning lawyers have been pushing DeVos to rescind Obama-era guidance on the matter. The Trump administration has already rescinded guidance that provided protections for transgender students.
Roger Clegg, president and general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, has been pressuring the Trump administration to re-examine guidance related to student punishments. In 2014, the Education Department warned that it would initiate investigations into school districts with severe racial disparities in student discipline. Those disparities need not be the result of direct discrimination to warrant examination, the guidance states.
Studies have shown that black students are suspended more frequently than white students, even for the same offenses.
In late March, Clegg wrote to the administration calling for withdrawal of that directive.
“It is bad policy because it means that perfectly legitimate school discipline polices can be struck down or abandoned because they have politically incorrect statistical results,” said Clegg on Tuesday, before the new executive order had been announced.
Clegg said he has “reason to believe” the administration is taking his concerns seriously.
“I think in the long term, a reason we have these disparities is because of the fact that unfortunately there are a higher percentage of discipline problems in some racial and ethnic groups than other racial and ethnic groups. It’s not anything genetic; it’s cultural,” said Clegg, pointing to the disparities in out-of-wedlock birth rates between black and white families.
However, Catherine Brown of the progressive Center for American Progress thinks the executive order may not result in any significant changes.
“I think it’s kind of silly. I feel like it’s purely symbolic,” said Brown. “I think he’s just trying to get as many executive orders before the first 100 days so he could claim it as credit.”