It's not every year that a new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, becomes a household name, satirized on Saturday Night Live, never mind being the most unpopular member of a historically unpopular cabinet. But we live in interesting times and the nations' schools and colleges are no exception. Here's a look back at the major moments in education this year, and a glimpse of what's to come in 2018.
A lot of the flash points in our schools coverage this year had to do with civil rights and the experiences of minorities, including special education students and immigrants. Under DeVos, the department reversed many of the Obama administration's uses of the bully pulpit.
- Secretary DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on transgender rights, and as a result the Supreme Court rejected the case of student Gavin Grimm in Virginia, who sued his school to use the bathroom of his choosing.
- The department pulled back Obama-era Title IX guidance around sexual assault on campuses, with a new emphasis on the rights of the accused.
- We covered the winding down of the DACA immigration program and what would become of the DREAMers, many of whom are in high school or college.
- A March Supreme Court decision, before the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, cheered special education advocates who want higher standards for children with special needs. But as our coverage from Florida and Indiana showed, private schools often don't guarantee that they will serve students with disabilities. In June, Secretary DeVos repeatedly refused, under questioning, to say that she would require these schools not to discriminate.
Age of anxiety, and dislocation
- More broadly, students say they feel affected by the Trump administration's policies toward immigrants, Muslims and political polarization in general. A commonly cited figure is that about 1 in 4 young students has an immigrant parent.
- We reported on a survey that 70 percent of teachers said their students are concerned about their families, and that more than half are stressed and anxious over what's in the news.
- Finally, many students were internally displaced by Hurricane Maria and came to the mainland United States. Others were dislocated by Harvey, Irma and wildfires.
On the policy front, DeVos and Trump invoked school choice again and again. But we haven't yet seen massive federal policy changes that would lead to more money for charter schools or private schools. Some big states like Florida, Texas and Illinois did pass their own laws that would give charter schools more state and local funding.
In the new tax measure, public school advocates are worried the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction will ultimately make it harder to fund public schools, and especially to fund them more equitably across rich and poor districts. Another provision allows the use of 529 tax-advantaged savings accounts for private school tuition.
Another wrinkle is that a national survey showed a big, and bipartisan, plunge in support for charter schools in 2017.
Now let's turn to what's on our list for 2018.
- The extended effects of school closures due to natural disasters in Florida, Texas, California and Puerto Rico will continue to be felt this spring and in the coming school year. Considering scientific forecasts of climate change, there is no reason to believe that the pace of disasters will slow. How can schools respond? And beyond these immediate needs, how can schools prepare students for the realities of a changing planet?
- Over the last year we've seen many for-profit colleges shutting down, merging or selling for a dollar. It will be interesting to see whether this continues despite the friendly regulatory environment from the Department of Education and Republican lawmakers. For example, the department just announced that some students from the shuttered Corinthian Colleges will get only a portion of their money back.
- Big changes may be coming to student loans, and colleges in general, with the Higher Education Act now in the House. The bill is a long way from becoming law, but right now it includes fewer loan programs, lower limits and an end to forgiveness programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Plus, there is support for quicker, cheaper, career programs focused on job training.
- And back to civil rights, there is yet another piece of Obama-era guidance that may see a rollback. This one is a 2014 letter from the Departments of Justice and Education about school discipline and race. The Departments instructed schools that they will investigate complaints of discrimination related to discipline policies. Years of research has found that black and Hispanic students are disciplined more harshly than white students, suspended and expelled at higher rates, beginning in preschool. Since the guidance came out, we've been hearing a lot more about alternative approaches to discipline like restorative justice. In recent years 27 states, and, more than 50 of America's largest school districts, have reformed their policies with the intention of reducing suspensions and expulsions. However, the Education Department has said it will delay enforcement of a rule related to this guidance. And, in recent weeks, officials met with critics who say that schools are less safe as a result of the changes in school discipline.