What you need to know about the tax law and education
Judy Woodruff: The coming year could be an important one for America's K-12 public schools, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will be a key part of that.
She has made it clear that she wants to expand school choice options, and she may go further in rolling back some Obama era guidelines.
William Brangham has our look ahead of what you need to know. It's part of our weekly education coverage, Making the Grade.
William Brangham: The Trump administration will also play a key role, deciding what happens to students who are eligible for DACA. That's the policy that protects immigrant children.
But, first, let's talk about one of the changes that's happening because of the new tax law. Parents will now be able to use up to $10,000 from their tax-free 529 college savings accounts to help pay for private or religious schools for any grade, not just college.
So here to help walk us through this and other changes is Alyson Klein of Education Week and Anya Kamenetz of NPR.
Alyson, I would love to start with you.
Let's talk about these 529s. These were the system set up so that people could sock away some money tax-free for college. It's now changed under the tax law. What's the implication for public education?
Alyson Klein: Sure.
So, parents will now be able to save money in these funds which were previously, as you said, just to use for college savings, for private school tuition, as you said, both private schools and religious schools.
You mentioned before that school choice is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' favorite policy. So, this is her biggest win so far on school choice. But it's not going to really help the kids that she has said need school choice the most, poor children from low-income families, because those families don't tend to pay a lot in taxes or their parents may not have a ton of money to sock away, as you said.
So, in the future, you know, Betsy DeVos I think is going to continue to push on some other fronts on school choice. She's called this a good start, but she knows this isn't going to help the poorest kids in the country.
William Brangham: Anya, there is another impact that you mentioned in the tax bill that might also have a big impact on public education, and that's the state and local tax deduction that people can now take — or the changes to that.
Can you explain what happened and what impact that might have?
Anya Kamenetz: Yes.
So public schools get the vast majority of their money from state and local taxes. And up until this bill, those taxes could be deducted in full from your federal taxes. So, that amounted to a very large subsidy by the federal government towards public schools.
Now there is a state and local tax cap of $10,000 for the total deduction, and that is going to especially affect sort of high-property value areas, where they are directing a lot of that money to schools, where schools are often very coveted, very well-regarded.
And what it's also going to do, some public school advocates fear, is it's going to limit the amount of money that's available that states can use to try to level the playing field for school funding. And so down the road, when states are trying to raise money to pay for public schools, among other very important functions of the states, they're going to have hard time doing that, because that cap on the deduction is going to be felt by some of the highest taxpayers in every state.
William Brangham: OK.
Another thing that I had mentioned in the intro was this issue of DACA, which is again not something that we tend to think of with regards to education.
Alyson, can you explain what — obviously, DACA applies — this was a sort of a granting of some legal status to immigrant children who were brought here by their parents without documentation. What does DACA have to do with public education, though?
Alyson Klein: So, right now, there are thousands of teachers — the Migration Policy Institute actually estimates that it's 20,000 teachers — who are protected by DACA.
William Brangham: Teachers themselves?
Alyson Klein: Teachers themselves, sure.
So, if this initiative is rescinded by Congress or by the Trump administration, then it's an open question what happens to those teachers. They could lose their jobs. They could end up being deported.
Some school districts like Miami-Dade and Los Angeles have said that they are going to do what they can to protect these teachers, but there is a lot of anxiety out there among them.
Also, 250,000 schoolchildren have become eligible for DACA since President Obama put the initiative in place in 2012. So this affects kind of both sides of the education equation, both the educators and their students.
William Brangham: Anya, there is another issue, the law called ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Can you explain what that is all about and what might be happening in 2018 with regards to it?
Anya Kamenetz: So, ESSA is the big federal education law that governs K-12 schools. It's the update to the more famous No Child Left Behind law, and it has to do with how states evaluate both their students and their schools' performance.
And what has been happening so far last year is that states have been submitting their plans to the Education Department for how they're going to update how they evaluate both schools and students.
And there's been some back and forth about this, about whether Betsy DeVos is rubber-stamping these plans or in some cases being too tough. But what we're going to see is more emerging trends around how states might be treating their students.
And one of the issues I'm most interested in is the non-academic indicators. So, states are now able to include — or, actually, they are required to include a non-academic measure of success that can be something like attendance or something more broad-based like social and emotional skills.
And so that's something that is very interesting in terms of what schools and states are trying to pay attention to now.
William Brangham: Alyson, one of the things that you had mentioned to me was that the argument that the secretary of education — one of their great sources of power is using their department as a bully pulpit. And this is something the Obama administration did.
And I know that it issued guidance to a lot of schools, saying the evidence is clear that you are disproportionately punishing black and brown kids in schools, and we're going to keep an eye on that.
Is that something that Secretary DeVos is likely to roll back or continue? What do you know about that?
Alyson Klein: So, that's an open question.
She's met with both supporters and detractors of the Obama administration's guidance, which was intended to make sure that school discipline practices are fair to all groups of students, including minority students.
She hasn't tipped her hand yet one way or the other on how she's going to approach that issue.
William Brangham: Anya, same thing on this issue of Title IX. I understand Secretary DeVos was — she caused a bit of stir with regards to the guidance on sexual assault.
Can you tell us what happened there?
Anya Kamenetz: Absolutely.
So, the Obama era guidance was very clear on the idea that sexual assault and sexual harassment is a violation of Title IX, civil rights, and the right to an equal education for students of both sexes.
And what DeVos did was hailed by some people as rebalancing, as the reinstatement of due process and the rights of the accused. And others said this is really sweeping sexual assault and sexual harassment under the rug.
What I have heard on campuses is that no campus, whether K-12 or higher ed, is necessarily going to walk back the steps that they have made to try the root out sexual assault and sexual harassment. But the change in emphasis is certainly going to be seen when we think of some of those high-profile cases on both sides where sometimes people turn out to be wrongfully accused.
Other times, there are offenses that really go to an egregious level.
William Brangham: All right, lots of things to keep an eye on.
Anya Kamenetz, Alyson Klein, thank you both very much.
Alyson Klein: Thank you.
Anya Kamenetz: Thanks.