What Will Trump’s Ed Tech Policies Look Like?

Little has been said so far, but the White House and Congress will impact digital education in a number of ways.

by Adam Stone / March 1, 2017
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In December, as the White House prepared to sanction Russia for hacking, President Donald Trump said: “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer [sic] has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”

Some call this a nice summation of the situation facing those who wish to predict what the new administration may bring in the realm of education technology.

On the campaign trail, Trump offered few specifics about either education or technology. To plan for the coming year’s ed tech policy evolutions, advocates have had to search for signs and hints, scanning the track records of key leaders in Congress and on Trump’s leadership team. Some themes emerge. Congress may do something with higher education, and it will likely act on technical training. It may address technology training for educators, as well as broadband availability. The president may or may not encourage or endorse these efforts. Much remains unknown, but that hasn’t stopped the experts from weighing in on key ed tech issues.

In December 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a successor bill to No Child Left Behind that governs federal K-12 education policy. In Title IV Part A, the bill authorizes a range of activities, including the effective use of technology supported by professional development, blended learning and ed tech devices.

Although Congress authorized $1.65 billion for Title IV, last year the House approved just $300 million in this area, while the Senate would have budgeted $1 billion. No compromise was reached, meaning ESSA funding will likely come up for consideration in 2017, and education advocates want to see Congress dole out the full authorized amount.

ESSA does specifically address ed tech, and while it won’t give every kid a tablet, it could help teachers become more tech savvy. “It is not intended to be used to purchase devices or software. It’s meant to focus on professional development for teachers and administrators to effectively use technology for students,” said Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), which supports the use of technology for teaching, learning and school operations.

Jon Bernstein, founder and president of Bernstein Strategy Group. Photo credit: David Kidd

Congress’ lack of action has been problematic to some, especially for school districts trying to write budgets without a clear understanding of future funding streams. That could change, but much will depend on whether the new administration opts to take up the cause. “Now it becomes about the Trump administration’s priorities,” said Jon Bernstein, founder and president of Bernstein Strategy Group. “The only thing we have heard from them about education is that they are interested in a giant school choice block grant — charter schools, vouchers for private schools, magnet schools. All of that could take money away from this program.”

Others meanwhile say the block grant nature of Title IV could make it appealing to Trump’s team, which has shown a desire to highlight the state and local role in education. It may be possible, for instance, to frame ESSA’s tech strategy to support that mindset by encouraging districts to use the funding for specific, local needs. “With ESSA’s emphasis around professional development, people can look for the specific ways in which technology can be effectively implemented,” said Doug Mesecar, former assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Education Department and now vice president of strategic partnerships at IO Education, a software-as-a-service education platform company. 

Students increasingly need Internet access to do their homework, and yet a broadband gap persists. Some 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet service at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, and low-income households — especially black and Hispanic ones — make up a disproportionate share of that figure.

Last overhauled in 2014, the federal E-rate program is supposed to help close that gap by providing discounts to help schools and libraries gain affordable telecommunications and Internet access.

This year, the financial formula of $150 per student could come under review. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets the formula and has lost E-rate champions Tom Wheeler and Jessica Rosenworcel, Bernstein said, noting that FCC Chair Ajit Pai has shown support for the program, even while indicating that it could be run more efficiently. 

Beyond the funding formula, experts are closely watching to see how much oversight the FCC chooses to exert. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the FCC to try to tell schools and districts how to use E-rate funds for ed tech,” said Mesecar, noting that the detailed work of implementing ed tech falls outside the realm of the FCC’s usual regulatory duties.

In fact, the program might benefit from a little more autonomy from the regulatory agency. “There is work that can be done to make those funds more usable and accessible, and the FCC’s views of how to handle the dollars don’t always line up with how money actually gets spent in the districts. It doesn’t always make practical sense. The FCC does what it does, and it ends up being a little too complicated for everyone who doesn’t live in that same world. It could be done more effectively,” Mesecar said.

Associations gear up for 2017

Professional associations at the intersection of education and technology say they are gearing up to address a range of issues in the coming year as they seek common ground with a new administration.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), an education advocacy group, is looking to expand broadband access — perhaps through an infrastructure initiative — and to secure full funding for ESSA Title IV Part A, according to Jon Bernstein, founder and president of Bernstein Strategy Group, who works on behalf of the group.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a professional association for district technology leaders, also has broadband front and center. “First and foremost, CoSN will work to help the new administration understand the value of E-rate as well as the recent changes to the Lifeline program. Those connectivity programs that are already in place are a big focus for CoSN in 2017,” said Reg Leichty, founder and partner of Foresight Law + Policy.

CoSN also has high hopes for ESSA funding. “The great thing is it has support on both sides of the aisle. Republicans like block grants, they like the flexibility; and Democrats like the focus of the program,” Leichty said.

At the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), which promotes technology-enhanced learning in higher education, Director of Policy and Analysis Russ Poulin is advocating on behalf of extending the Pell Grant program to cover year-round learning, a move he says would have deep technology implications.

“This speaks to distance learning, it speaks to adaptive learning, it speaks to competency-based education — all the places where the calendar is not the traditional calendar,” he said.

Some see a way to bolster E-rate by putting it up alongside Trump’s clearly articulated desire to upgrade the national infrastructure. “If we are talking about roads and bridges, that discussion should also include a conversation about the telecommunications infrastructure,” said Reg Leichty, founder and partner of Foresight Law + Policy.

“The education community is saying: If you are going to invest in infrastructure, you have to invest in schools and libraries and health centers as hubs of connectivity. For students, we should invest in the infrastructure that allows them to do their homework at home,” he said. “We need to do better to make sure everyone is connected to high-capacity broadband, and the federal government could play a big role in that.”

The idea exists on paper, noted Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), which advocates for technology-enhanced learning in higher education. In his new role as FCC chair, Pai has made high-speed broadband access one of his top priorities, created a committee to provide policy recommendations and laid out plans for how to expand access. The Republican Party platform also calls for increased broadband availability, albeit without getting specific. 

But the pendulum could swing the other way, for instance, with congressional action to scale down the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone and broadband access for low-income households. “This program is not beloved by Republicans in Congress, who charge there is waste, fraud and abuse in the program. We think people will take a hard look at it,” Bernstein said. “We anticipate a fight coming.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., kept his seat as chair of the Senate’s education committee in the 115th Congress. When asked about his education technology priorities, Alexander’s office stated he will be focused on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs how federal student aid programs are administered.

The new chair of the House education committee Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., has said she too would like an updated Higher Ed Act, one that gives students more information, including, for example, the costs for books and fees along with tuition data.

As an agenda item, a lot of pressure is building around higher ed in general. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., made college costs a hot-button issue during his unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination. The administration also must find its feet on the complex questions of for-profit schools and the delivery of online for-credit classes. These policy questions, combined with corporate interests, could put higher ed and its associated technologies on the front burner.

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Doug Mesecar, former assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Education Department and now vice president of strategic partnerships at IO Education. Photo credit: David Kidd

At the same time, a number of unresolved questions exist surrounding the possible implementation of ed tech in higher education. In particular, observers wonder how tight a Republican administration will choose to hold the reins. “Will the feds take a step back and allow for more experimentation and innovation? Or will they continue to take a fairly narrow view of what it means to be accredited, making it more difficult for schools to explore these issues? Will there be a less heavy-handed approach to some of these issues?” Mesecar said.

If the Higher Education Act does come up for an overhaul, some in the education community would like to see the next iteration incorporate the latest technology tools in a more pervasive way.

For example, Congress could help implement a better feedback loop between K-12 and higher ed in order to more effectively track students’ progress. “It’s not just about devices for instruction. It’s not just about broadband,” Leichty said. “We need higher ed to be more deliberate about connecting to K-12 institutions. That includes better connectivity and better reporting.”

Most ed-sector watchers say the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act will likely come up for reauthorization this year. Alexander’s office told Converge that the senator will make it an early priority and will leave it up to local beneficiaries to decide what technology investments would make best sense in service of the act’s work-readiness goals. Foxx has likewise said that Perkins is a top priority.

This is one place where education and technology may most closely intersect because technology plays a pivotal role in so many fields that may fall under the heading of “career and technical education.” Many schools already have benefited from this, tapping Perkins funds as a way to access needed technology. “We want students to use technology in every class, but if this is a way to get it in the door, great, let’s start there,” Weeks said.

Perkins funds could, for instance, help to finance science, technology, engineering and math learning, along with virtual labs, online training or internships in technology companies.

More to the point, Perkins is politically viable, a rare issue that enjoys broad bipartisan support. “It’s not controversial and it does a lot of good, ensuring kids have the skills businesses want and need,” Bernstein said. 

That practical aspect also may make Perkins appealing to a president who made jobs a key campaign issue. Technology-driven education could be positioned as means to bolster the workforce outside of the traditional higher education pipeline, Leichty said.

The fate of these diverse initiatives may rest largely in the hands of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an education reformer, Michigan billionaire and major Republican donor. 

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Photo courtesy of betsydevos.com

DeVos was a leading figure in helping shape her state’s vigorous charter school efforts, and she has been a staunch proponent of vouchers. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers opposed her for the secretary’s job. In a January letter to Alexander, 20 governors expressed their support for DeVos. Ultimately, in a dramatic moment, Vice President Mike Pence cast the historic tie-breaking vote on Feb. 7 to confirm her nomination in the Senate.

What’s not known are her attitudes toward ed tech. Some see opportunity in that ambiguity, a potential secretary whose views could be swung. “She wants every kid to have a quality choice in education. Well, education tech can provide some great choices for kids, whether they stay in their present school or choose a different one,” Mesecar said, suggesting that technology can be an avenue to educational excellence in any setting.

Some point to DeVos’ past support for blended learning, which relies partly on digital tools, as a potential positive sign, while others say they are looking for some indication of a deeper commitment. 

“We are hoping to see an underlying fundamental belief that technology is an important piece of providing access to education — that it can be a way to help all our current schools to become schools of choice, if we are smart about how we do it,” Weeks said.

The coming months could be a learning period for DeVos, as ed tech advocates work to sway her opinions. Certainly those advocates are willing to instruct. “I do think there are opportunities with Betsy DeVos in terms of technology, but because her career has mainly focused on choice, we are going to have to spend some time with her and her staff to show her the places where technology can be useful,” Bernstein said. 

In an all-staff meeting, DeVos noted her willingness to learn: “I’m a door-open type of person who listens, here to serve with you.”

Any changeover in Washington comes with uncertainty, but longtime players say this round is different, that Trump’s opaqueness on key ed tech issues raises a host of unanswered questions. Those who see a place for technology as a key ingredient in education will be watching closely, and perhaps leaning heavily, as Congress and the president get down to work in the coming months. 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Converge spring 2017 magazine issue.