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Trump orders study of federal role in education

President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meet with parents and teachers at a Catholic school in Florida in March. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that requires Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to study whether and how the federal government has overstepped its legal authority in K-12 schools, a move he framed as part of a broader effort to shift power from Washington to states and local communities.

“Previous administrations have wrongfully forced states and schools to comply with federal whims and dicate what our kids are taught,” Trump said at the White House. “But we know that local communities do it best and know it best.”

The order does not invest DeVos with any new authority. She already has broad powers to revise or withdraw policies that her predecessors promulgated.

Rob Goad, a department official, said the order gives DeVos 300 days to conduct a review to identify any regulations or guidance related to K-12 schools that is inconsistent with federal law. The review will be led by a task force headed by Robert Eitel, a senior counselor to DeVos who previously worked for a for-profit college company.

The GOP has long been home to lawmakers who say that the federal government should not be involved in public education. But complaints of federal overreach intensified during President Barack Obama’s administration as the department wielded billions of dollars in stimulus funds — and promises of relief from the No Child Left Behind law — to push states toward adopting new teacher evaluations and Common Core academic standards.

The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 transferred much authority over public schools from the federal government to the states. Many on the right are looking for signs that Trump will do more to unwind the federal role in education.

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Trump’s order brings “welcome attention to a much-overlooked problem of behavior that has festered through all administrations,” said Jeanne Allen, a veteran of the Reagan administration who runs the D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which advocates for vouchers, charter schools and other forms of choice.

Allen said she’s hopeful that DeVos will get rid of the department’s guidance to schools on a variety of issues. The secretary could do that without an executive order and without involvement from Congress, as she did in February when she withdrew controversial guidance to schools on accommodating transgender students.

Obama’s Education Department was notably aggressive on civil rights, not only in directing schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms matching their gender identity but also in pushing for school-discipline revamps and in pressing colleges to overhaul their handling of sexual assault on campus.

Those efforts, coupled with the department's sometimes wide-ranging investigations into thousands of complaints of alleged discrimination against students nationwide, also led to complaints of federal overreach. Supporters of those moves on civil rights fear the Trump administration's campaign to shrink the federal role in education will translate into weaker protections for vulnerable students.

Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said the order changes nothing. "Trump isn't signing it to actually improve education for American students," she said. "He is doing it to put a fake point on the board within his first 100 days because he can't pass an accomplishment of significance."