‘Bigly’ Education Decisions for 2017

Policy and Government

‘Bigly’ Education Decisions for 2017

By David DeSchryver     Dec 21, 2016

‘Bigly’ Education Decisions for 2017

If the President-elect’s Tweet storms are any indication, education policies are in for an adventure next year. While, as American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar Rick Hess has observed, no one knows exactly how the new administration's campaign promises will play out, there are two policy areas that edtech decision-makers ought to pay extra attention to.

School Choice

Donald Trump campaigned on school choice* with a promise of a big investment in the policy, proffering up to $20 billion from existing and new funds. (The details are anything but clear on the source of these dollars.) The nominated Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is also an unabashed advocate of school choice. One early opportunity to make good on this is the federal DC Scholarship program, which has been the Republican’s small voucher demonstration program in the nation’s capital. It allows about 1,200 eligible students in Washington D.C. to attend a qualifying private or public school of their choice. President Obama allowed the program to expire in 2009, but it was reauthorized for five years in 2011.

Its future looks bright. According to our Whiteboard Advisors Post Election Analysis, 94 percent of our Education Insiders believe that Trump will restore the program’s funding. (Insiders include current and former White House and U.S. Department of Education (ED) staff, Congressional leaders, state school chiefs, and leaders of major trade associations, think tanks, and advocacy groups.)

Another opportunity would be the use of tax policy to create education savings accounts (ESA). These are financial incentives that a parent or guardian can apply against allowable education expenses such as online tutoring, supplemental educational materials, therapies for disabilities, and even private school tuition. Currently, five states are operating some form of a state-funded ESA. Exactly how the new administration would make this work at the federal level is not yet known, but the issue will likely be part of the forthcoming tax reform debate.

The big-league choice policy (other than finding billions in new revenue) would be to make Title I of the ESSA “portable.” That means taking Congress’ $15 billion annual investment in K-12 and requiring the funds to “follow the student” to the public or private school of his or her choice.

The nuanced details behind such a policy are complex but the impact on district budgets and purchasing demands attention. Allowing portability means that districts would not know their exact Title I allocation until enrollment for that year is complete. For many districts, not knowing what their budget is until after each school year starts would certainly chill purchases that rely on those funds, in part or in whole. For example, if 60 percent of a purchase for a reading intervention relied on Title I, the district would not be able to commit to a vendor until it knew it could afford the initial purchase and support it in subsequent years.

Federal Student Aid

In higher education, a critical issue will be whether federal student aid will be made available to students who attend nontraditional, unaccredited programs. Currently, the rules that protect federal student aid against waste fraud and abuse are deeply tied to traditional measures of instructional quality, such as the academic year and the credit hour. They are not accommodating of programs that are trying to move towards other measures, such as the demonstration of student skills and workforce-ready competencies. This aversion to risk is not unreasonable, given that the government provides about $150 billion in new federal student aid every year.

Reform of student aid rules would be well timed, amid a growing shift across both the learning and hiring landscape. In “Shift Happens,” released last week, Jamai Blivin, CEO of Innovate +Educate and Whiteboard Advisors’ Ben Wallerstein, explain how the learning-to-employment landscape is challenging historic models of higher education, training and hiring. These educational opportunities are increasingly available outside of traditional institutions. Employers are providing skills based training to their staff utilizing unbundled, SaaS resources like LinkedIn Learning. A new competency-based learning and employment ecosystem is emerging despite traditional federal rules and guidelines. That begs the question: how will the federal government adapt?

ED is already exploring the possible answers. The Experimental Sites Initiative, under the authority of the Higher Education Act, allows the Secretary to test the boundaries of allowable uses of student aid. In 2015, the Secretary used ESI to launch the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) experiment and greenlight new public-private partnership programs. EQUIP aims to offer higher-ed institutions the flexibility to enable undergraduate students, or those seeking post‐baccalaureate certificates, to receive federal financial aid when enrolled in programs created in partnership with unaccredited providers. For example, the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) is operating an EQUIP site with Straighterline to provide its students with more flexible and affordable online coursework that allows them new paths to degree completion. Colorado State University - Global is partnering with Guild Education for online programs in business management that prepare working adults to move from low-wage roles into supervisory roles while also earning credits towards a bachelor’s degree.

These experiments, and the emerging ecosystem, pose big questions for the Trump administration. If EQUIP sites are successful, when will ED begin to move them from the exception to the rule? What guideposts will govern the expansion of new partnerships? And will the administration take it a step further and allow alternative unaccredited providers to receive Title IV directly? Sixty percent of Education Insiders believe that this is likely under a Trump administration. This would be a bigly billion-dollar shift.

All of this is speculative, of course. If the election taught the polls and pundits anything, it is that our crystal balls are cloudy at best. That said, it is certain that the policy shifts and directives of the Trump administration will impact the availability of hundreds of billions in federal funds.

*School choice is a broad term that includes vouchers, charters, education savings accounts and more. This article does not dive into all the options on the table. Charter schools, for example, will certainly be a big issue, but I'm leaving that topic for another post.

David DeSchryver (@ddeschryver) is Senior Vice President and Co-Director of Research at Whiteboard Advisors

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