Just over a month into 2017, new congressional leaders and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair have already taken significant actions that could affect education leaders. Congress confirmed a new U.S. education secretary and is considering overturning several Education Department rules. Meanwhile, the FCC is taking action on a number of high-speed broadband fronts.
Although Senate Democrats hotly contested President Trump's education secretary nominee, the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as the new U.S. education secretary on Tuesday, Feb. 7, with the help of a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. DeVos spent her first day on the job meeting employees at several U.S. Education Department office buildings and spoke at a livestreamed staff meeting.
In her remarks, DeVos stressed the importance of listening, being open to different viewpoints and coming together to do what's best for children.
"I pledge to listen and learn from you and stakeholders from around the country," DeVos said. "I hope to earn your confidence as we work together. Let's make this deal: I will challenge all on how and why we've done things a certain way. But I will listen to each of you on your ideas of how we can do better for students."
DeVos will decide who oversees the U.S. Education Department's Office of Educational Technology, along with other key offices including the Office for Civil Rights. She will also set the tone for how the Education Department enforces existing federal laws and uses its discretionary budget fund, which totaled $68.1 billion last year and makes up a small percentage of local school district budgets. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that took effect this year, state and local leaders have more flexibility and accountability in how they use federal funds, which means the education secretary will play a smaller role.
Congress has taken up a number of education issues, including the education secretary nomination, Education Department rules and the Higher Education Act that governs federal student aid administration. Tuesday, Feb. 7, was a particularly busy day for education actions.
Under the Congressional Review Act, Congress can review new government agency rules that haven't yet gone into effect and take up to 60 days to overrule them. The Trump administration also issued a memo to leaders of federal agencies to temporarily postpone effective dates for previously approved rules so his team and Congress would have time to review them.
Two Education Department rules made the list of rules that some Republican leaders want to void, including one on teacher preparation and one on accountability and state plans under ESSA. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ill., each introduced a resolution that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, Feb. 7, and now the resolutions will move on to the Senate. In a statement of administrative policy on the same day, the White House indicated that Trump would sign the bills as they currently read.
Some states already have their accountability plans underway for ESSA, and if these resolutions become law, they will need to wait for new implementation guidance. As for the Higher Education Act, universities would also need to wait for new guidance on the accountability system for their teacher preparation programs. In both cases, existing Congressional laws require accountability, but the Education Department rules lay out what that looks like in practice.
Also on Feb. 7, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce with new Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.. held a hearing on challenges and opportunities in higher education, which included a discussion of updating the Higher Education Act.
In other action on Feb. 7, new FCC Chair Ajit Pai clarified his position on closing the digital divide between people who have access to high-speed broadband and those who don't. The FCC makes rules about broadband and telecommunications, including discounted rates for low-income families through the Lifeline program and for schools that serve high percentages of students from these families through the E-rate program.
Pai said in a statement that he has made closing the digital divide a top priority and set an open meeting for Feb. 23 that will include consideration of two orders. The first order would allocate billions of dollars over 10 years to extend 4G LTE coverage to places that don't have it, and the second order would provide nearly $2 billion to advance fixed broadband service. This type of wireless service provides Internet access to consumers from a fixed point while they're in one place, such as a home connection.
He also addressed the controversy over a Feb. 3 order that had been misinterpreted in some media coverage. The order did not kill new broadband discounts under Lifeline, but rather changed the status of nine out of more than 900 Lifeline-approved service providers to "pending" in response to a petition from the National Tribal Telecommunications Association. Outgoing FCC leaders approved the companies during the transition between administrations, and Pai said he wants more time to consider whether the FCC or state governments should approve providers.
Outside of Lifeline, the FCC also rescinded an E-rate modernization progress report and started looking for nominations of people to serve on a newly formed Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee that will focus on accelerating deployment of high-speed Internet access.
It's been a busy first few weeks in the education policy world, and if this pace keeps up, a lot more could happen soon in both K-12 and higher education on a variety of fronts.