Grant Wiens at Mickes O'Toole LLC, believes new administrations taking over at the state and federal level, and with same-party majorities in the legislative branches at both levels, local school districts can expect changes during the next couple of years. Complicating matters, President Trump and Governor Greitens are relatively new entrants into politics, creating uncertainty around their priorities and policy preferences in education.
Although it is rarely wise to predict the future, district administrators may benefit from keeping a close watch on certain issues that could end up having far-reaching implications for school operations and future funding.
- Charter Expansion. School choice is a hallmark of the Republican Party and it is expected to be no different with the Trump and Greitens administrations. President Trump has strongly advocated for more choice options, promising to re-appropriate federal funds to create block grants for states to develop their own public or private choice programs. In Missouri, legislators are in session now debating a central component of the school choice movement – charter schools. One proposal that appears on track to make it out of committee would expand charter schools throughout the state, effectively removing the current restrictions around geographic location and accreditation. If passed, each school district in the state could potentially face a local charter school opening and serving students within a year, along with the corresponding effect on district funding. It is also expected that charter schools will remain an area of focus in future years, with possible revisions to oversight regulations and funding sources.
- Education Savings Accounts and Vouchers. Governor Greitens began the 2017 legislative session by promoting education savings accounts for students with special education needs. Under the proposal, the accounts would allow for the transfer of state funding dollars to parents through a separate bank account, which could be used for educational costs including private school tuition, textbooks, online classes, and therapy. Moving forward this year or next, it is likely that discussions will center around expanded use of these savings accounts, allowing more students the opportunity to use these state dollars on choice options.
- Virtual Education Programs. Missouri legislators are also considering the expansion of access to virtual education, another pillar of school choice. The latest version of the relevant state bill mandates that each school district offer its students more choices from outside vendors for virtual education programming, all at the district’s added expense. Eligibility for a district-funded virtual class would depend on the availability and scheduling of a substantially equivalent course at the school. A similar interest in virtual education is being expressed at the national level, with some in the Trump administration debating how to use federal dollars to expand virtual programming.
- FLSA Overtime Rules. Upon taking office, President Trump immediately issued a memo freezing all federal regulations that had not yet gone into effect. Most believe that the freeze indicates Trump’s willingness to reverse many of the pro-labor regulations the Obama administration tried to enact, especially the controversial FLSA overtime rule. The regulations updating salary and compensation levels for qualified exemptions from OT have also faced legal challenges and a nationwide injunction blocking enforcement. Uncertainty around what the FLSA overtime regulations will ultimately look like after the Trump administration has weighed in leaves school districts in a difficult position. Many districts have already announced pay increases or changed job duties, roles, and responsibilities. Deciding if, when, and how to reverse course has significant morale and operational consequences.
- Accountability Rules in ESSA. In Washington, the House of Representatives recently passed a resolution to rollback certain accountability regulations and teacher-preparation programs related to the Every Student Succeeds Act. The rules had been approved by the Obama administration at the end of his second term and pushed forward a variety of policy goals, including how states rated school performance, addressed underperforming schools, and accounted for English-language learners in state planning. With the Senate considering whether it will support a similar resolution, it is unclear what exact steps the Trump administration will take in regards to the ESSA. It is expected that the new administration will try to offer states flexibility from parts of ESSA and may work with Congress to create options for states to opt out from a range of federal requirements while still receiving federal funding.
- Transgender Students. Last month, the Trump administration reversed guidance that the Obama administration had previously publicized, which stated that Title IX protects the right of transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities. This session, the Missouri legislature is considering a bill that requires use of public school restrooms and locker rooms to be restricted by biological gender and that identifies alternative accommodations for transgender students (e.g., single-stall or unisex restrooms). This spring, the Supreme Court will hear and decide a case regarding a transgender student’s right to use the bathroom at school that corresponds with the student’s gender identity. Overall, this flurry of activity creates a likelihood of conflicting guidance and rules being issued by our state legislature, the federal government, and the court system. That confusion, and the overall media attention focused on this issue, may very well force a school district into defending its policies before the surrounding community or the local courts.
In one manner or another, each of these six issues has the potential to influence district funding and school operations in the near future. Whether or not legislative and judicial action is taken this year, these subjects are likely to remain on the agenda for several years to come. By talking through the questions now — inside your central office, at the Board level, and with an experienced attorney — a district can be prepared and can put itself in the best possible position to act efficiently and effectively whenever the next change happens.