This article appeared in the 2017 summer issue of The Classroom Teacher.

Federal education policy may not be in the headlines as much as health care reform or the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, but some important issues are being debated in Congress. Lawmakers and officials are working on initiatives related to career and technical education, student data systems and school choice. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is under review ahead of a possible reorganization that could shift responsibility back to states and local school districts.

Career and technical education

Career and technical education (CTE) initiatives are receiving much attention of late across the federal government, as policymakers and leaders look toward CTE programs as an alternative workforce development pipeline for the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math careers. CTE programs employ hands-on, work-based curricula to prepare students for high-need and high-paying occupations that do not require a traditional four-year bachelor degree, saving families thousands in tuition costs. Efforts to modernize CTE programs to bring skills training to the forefront will involve collaborations by the federal government, education institutions, industry and state labor agencies. 

Recently there have been several efforts in Washington, D.C., to build the nation’s technically trained workforce. In Congress, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, a bill that will reauthorize federal support for career and technical education, has passed in the House and is awaiting Senate action. Changes in the legislation would give states more leeway on what types of programs and initiatives they can support and allow states to set performance goals while eliminating the U.S. Department of Education’s authority to withhold funds from underperforming programs. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has said that passing the CTE reauthorization bill is a priority of his committee this year. 

In addition, the White House held a “Workforce Development Week” in June in which President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order that would eliminate oversight of government-subsidized apprenticeship programs. The measure directs the Labor Department to draft new rules allowing companies, industry groups and unions to create and certify their own programs, which would then be approved by the department. The order also funds $200 million in grants to grow apprenticeship programs in high schools and postsecondary educational institutions, including community colleges. The programs would be expanded to include industries such as agriculture and engineering. The executive order, in shifting responsibility to private industry, falls in line with the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for CTE that cuts millions of funds to state programs. It is important to note that the House of Representatives has rejected the president’s cuts and intends to fund existing CTE programs at the same
level as last year. 

States also were given more latitude to support CTE learning under the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. Title I provisions allow funding to schools for professional CTE development of teachers and instructional strategies to incorporate CTE learning. Title II allows states to expand alternative routes to certification and recruitment of industry professionals. Local school systems can play a vital role by incorporating CTE programming, as early as middle school, to create career pathways for various subgroups of students. 

Student unit record data system 

Since 2005, Congress has considered feasibility studies and recommendations to implement a student-level record system that would evaluate educational trends to gauge degree-level performance and post-college outcomes. By linking a student record across numerous data platforms, information on demographics, K-12 attendance, curriculum and grades, higher education major area of study, graduation rates, financial aid and employment earnings could all be used in predictive analysis. 

In August 2008, an amendment offered by the current House Education and Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) to ban a federal student unit record system was included in the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill and signed into law. The ban prevents individual-level data collected by different agencies from being connected. Since then, members of Congress have made attempts to allow enhanced data reporting, citing the need for consumer information and return of investment data in college selection. 

This past June, the House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing to discuss student data privacy protection in the context of education research as part of their work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA is a federal privacy law that gives parents certain protections regarding their children’s education records. 

Researchers cited the need for informative student data across K-12, higher education and employment environments in order to produce sound evidence-based policy and programming. Opponents fear the merging of data across platforms leads to an increased risk of unsecured interfaces, with data potentially put in the hands of unregulated third parties. The design and enforcement of protocols for secure handling of data, whether at the state or federal level, was a discussion point for the panel. A recent intrusion into the IRS’s FAFSA system that shut down the application during the college admissions filing period served as a stark example of student record vulnerability. 

Congress will look to balance the mining of large student record databases while offering consumer protections in the coming months as they continue to draft provisions under FERPA and HEA.

School choice/vouchers 

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have not shied away from their desire to offer parents more choices in selecting schools — including private schools — that they believe best fit the needs of their children. Recently, the budget requests they laid out for federal funding of school choice initiatives were not endorsed by the House. As of mid-July, the Senate had not released its education appropriations bill. 

For the coming school term, it appears as though a federal tax credit scholarship program included in a tax-reform package may be the mechanism used to fund school choice. Under this scenario, individuals and businesses would receive a federal tax credit in exchange for donations to scholarship-granting entities that award working-class families funds for private school. 

Both of these legislative options face difficulties becoming law in a divided Congress and with vocal pushback from public school supporters across the country. 

U.S. Department of Education 

Since taking office in January, Secretary DeVos has been tasked with reviewing the structure and mission of the agency along with analyzing work products (i.e. regulations) within the framework of reducing the federal imprint on education policy. With the change in administration and governing party, many mid- and upper-level personnel departed, leaving many Senate-appointed positions vacant and more than 150 management slots unfilled. Significant vacancies include the deputy secretary and under secretary, who direct the work of all other departments within the agency. Until these and assistant secretary roles with acting-designated personnel are filled, program-level staff are left somewhat rudderless — unable to chart new territory.

The staffing situation in the Department of Education is not unique. More than half of the 15 executive branch agencies under President Trump have only the secretary leading them confirmed by the Senate. Delays are due in part to Democrats stalling the nomination process. However, Secretary DeVos’s pick to serve as under secretary, Allan Hubbard, pulled out months after being vetted, perhaps signaling instability in the mission and direction of the agency. 

A handful of conservative Republicans in Congress have denounced the Department of Education, positioning states and local governments to be the authority over educational systems. We anticipate DeVos will follow through and unveil a reorganized structure of the agency in the not-too-distant future. Democrats will be steadfast in their opposition, claiming the work within the federal Office of Civil Rights to be paramount in ensuring the equitable education of all students.