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A Trump administration won't be good for equality in education

Op-ed: A Trump administration will likely bring bitter setbacks in the struggle for equality of educational op

How will President Trump affect public education? Almost certainly not as much as his supporters wish and his opponents fear. Either way, the next four years are likely to bring bitter setbacks in the struggle for equality of educational opportunity for poor and minority students.

The Trump administration will not seek to obliterate the Obama legacy in public education as it will, for example, in health care, the environment and bank regulation. The difference is that, earlier this year, the Congress had already beat him to the punch on K-12 school policy.

The recent Every Student Succeeds Act wiped out aggressive efforts by President Barack Obama and his secretary of education Arne Duncan to use federal power to hold states accountable for the abysmal academic achievement of low-income and disabled students. The Wall Street Journal called ESSA "the greatest devolution of power back to the states in education in 25 years."

Democrats were complicit, and that's a big reason why debate over education policy was missing in the otherwise vicious combat between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet the clearest history lesson from the nation's long quest for equal educational opportunity is that states have failed the course. They have never provided strong accountability or adequate resources to enable the poorest students to come close to meeting high academic standards.

The states are likely to do even less in the years ahead. Even though the Obama legacy in K-12 school policy has already been repudiated, a Trump administration will hardly be indifferent or idle in the nationwide education wars. That may be especially true if Vice President-elect Pence, who chairs Mr. Trump's transition team, exerts outsized influence. When in the Congress, he was one of only a handful of Republicans to vote against the George W. Bush-led No Child Left Behind Act. As governor of Indiana, he has zealously fought any federal role and promoted conservative choice options including vouchers.

Here's a short primer on high-visibility issues that loom across the Trump-Pence education landscape.

Will the U.S. Department of Education be abolished or gutted, as candidate Trump vowed? There's no chance of that now that its authority has already been curtailed and conservatives are in charge. New officials will have ample means to further water down regulations under the new ESSA law and push choice and privatization.

Will the "common core" standards be abolished, another campaign pledge? Factually, there are no federal standards to rescind since the standards are dependent on state-by-state adoption. What will vanish is any federal support for them.

What are the prospects for Mr. Trump's proposal for a $20 billion block grant to advance school choice? Candidate Trump offered no specifics, including no mention of where the money would come from. But this is fertile ground in which conservatives can plant federal seed money for states to expand choice options including charters, vouchers, tax credits and education savings accounts.

While Mr. Trump said the choice funds would be targeted for low-income students, the political reality is that much of the money may come from a shift in Title I dollars, already earmarked for poor students. From there, the overwhelmingly Republican state governments are sure to find ways to vastly broaden the target population.

And here's a sleeper: How will President Trump's appointment of one or more conservative members to the Supreme Court influence education reform? Most immediately, a conservative majority dampens the chances of a favorable decision in a pending case seeking to raise the bar for services for students with disabilities. Future decisions could particularly threaten teachers unions.

These are not happy projections for education reformers who believe that national and state action to overcome inequality of educational opportunity is critically needed and long overdue. We must now wage the struggle with more resolve and activism than ever.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, and a former member of the Baltimore school board. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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