Education, News, Trump Administration

Why Trump wants to diminish the U.S. Department of Education

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Since his election, President Donald Trump has made no secret of his plan to diminish the federal government’s role in public education, a big-ticket item for conservative reformers who balked at Obama-era education initiatives like Common Core.

That’s why it came as little surprise last month when the president proposed a merger between the federal education agency and the U.S. Department of Labor.

To explain Trump’s proposal, which has the support of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the nonprofit Brookings Institution offered some good background Monday on what’s come before for the Department of Education and what’s likely to come next.

Read on:

Republicans have opposed the Department of Education’s existence since its establishment in 1979. Recently, Republican voters’ backlash against the Common Core State Standards has reignited the Republican Party’s efforts to reduce the federal government’s role in education. In the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Trump campaigned to terminate Common Core and the Department of Education to restore local control in education. Even though this proposal is unlikely to become law, Trump is motivated to demote the Department of Education in order to advance his campaign promises and engage in “position taking” with Republican voters on a salient policy issue before the midterm election this November.

In October 1979, President Carter signed the Department of Education Reorganization Act, which established the Department of Education as a separate, Cabinet-level agency. Republicans opposed the enactment of this law because of their opposition to the federal government’s role in education and, generally, the growth of the federal government. President Reagan and Republican legislators introduced legislation to re-merge or abolish the Department of Education with no success. Over time, Democratic and Republican administrations, especially the George W. Bush administration, expanded the Department of Education’s influence in education.

During the Obama administration, the federal government’s role in education re-emerged as a salient policy issue for Republican voters because of their strong disapproval of Common Core. Common Core is a set of K-12 education standards that 45 state governments initially implemented in 2010 and 2011. Americans, especially Republicans, increasingly opposed Common Core because its curriculum standards constrained teachers, frustrated parents, and exemplified—in their view—the Obama administration’s overreach into local education. Based on Education Next’s annual poll in 2016, Republicans (53 percent) somewhat or strongly disapproved of Common Core to a greater extent than Democrats (32 percent). Interestingly, only 34 percent of Republicans somewhat or strongly disapproved of the academic standards when the term “Common Core” wasn’t included in the description of the policy issue.

Although state governments adopted Common Core, Republican legislators in Congress introduced and enacted legislation to prohibit the Department of Education from incentivizing state governments to adopt Common Core. From the beginning of the Obama administration in the 2009-10 congressional session, there were no introduced or amended bills that explicitly proposed to prohibit the federal government’s advocacy for Common Core in the 2009-10 or 2011-12 sessions, three bills in the 2013-14 session (H.R. 5, H.R. 4008, S. 2967), and six bills in the 2015-16 session (H.R.5, H.R. 524, H.R. 2803, S.73, S. 1177, S. Con. Res. 11). In December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which, in part, prohibits a federal government employee or officer from influencing, incentivizing, or coercing state governments to adopt the Common Core or other multi-state K-12 academic standards.

Over the same time period, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation to abolish or entirely defund the Department of Education. There were no introduced or amended bills that proposed to abolish or entirely defund the Department of Education in the 2009-10 session, one bill in the 2011-12 session (S. 162), one bill in the 2013-14 session (H.R. 5394), three bills in the 2015-16 session (H.R. 1950, H.R. 2281, H.R. 6119), and two bills in the 2017-18 session (H.R. 899, H.R. 1510).

By the end of President Obama’s second term, the Republican Party was clearly frustrated with the extent of the Department of Education’s reach and the Obama administration’s support of Common Core. In this context, this policy issue became a litmus test for the 2016 Republican presidential candidates during the primary election in summer and fall 2015. Republican candidates positioned themselves on Common Core to signal not only their position against the federal government’s overreach in education, but also their position for reducing the size of the federal government. During the primary election, then-candidate Trump advocated on Twitter to repeal Common Core (although this is not something the federal government had control over, then or now) and eliminate the Department of Education to reduce the federal government’s role in education. During the general election, candidate Trump pledged in his Contract with the American Voter to “end” Common Core and restore local control in education.

In order for Trump to successfully merge the two departments, it is necessary to enact a new law amending the original Department of Education Reorganization Act. To enact such a law, Trump will need a majority of votes in the House of Representatives and 60 votes in the Senate. (In the standard lawmaking process, 60 votes are required in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. If Republicans choose to amend the act through the budget reconciliation process, only a majority of votes in the Senate is necessary.) In the current session, there are only 51 Republicans in the Senate. The response of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher’s union in the country, is a reliable indicator of Democratic support for education-related legislation. In contrast to their ambivalence on Common Core, the NEA’s strong dismissal of this proposal suggests that Democrats in the Senate are unlikely to vote for the proposal. Given the insufficient number of Republican votes in the Senate, this proposal is unlikely to become law in the current congressional session.

Why, then, would President Trump propose this merger in the first place? The most likely answer is that the proposed merger is a case of “position taking,” an elected official’s public declaration for or against a salient policy issue to demonstrate policy congruence between the incumbent and her voters. According to political scientists David Mayhew and Phillip Edward Jones, voters are more likely to reward incumbents for the positions they take on policy issues, rather than the enactment of a policy or a policy’s outcomes. Thus, proposing a merger that is unlikely to happen may still be valuable for Trump and the Republican Party during a midterm election year; this position is consistent with Republican voters’ preference for a smaller federal government in general, and a smaller role for the Department of Education in particular.

Regardless of whether this proposal becomes law, Trump’s introduction of this plan may help increase his approval rating among his Republican base, mobilize Republican voters in the upcoming midterm election, and increase the likelihood the Republican Party will retain majority control of Congress.

News

Western Carolina University chancellor decision up in the air

Last week, the UNC Board of Governors scheduled a special session to vote on the new chancellor at Western Carolina University. The announcement of a new chancellor was expected, the culmination of a search process that began in February.

But today new board chairman Harry Smith released a statement saying the candidate being considered for the position has withdrawn from consideration. The search process itself is now, according to Smith, being reviewed and revised.

Smith’s statement:

“Today, I announce that the candidate for the position of Western Carolina University (WCU) Chancellor has withdrawn from consideration. President Spellings informed me that Alison Morrison-Shetlar has agreed to her request to continue to serve as interim Chancellor. On behalf of the UNC Board of Governors and President Spellings, I thank Alison for her leadership and service. WCU’s future is strong and bright.

The Board plans to complete an expedited review of the Chancellor search process in an effort to refine and improve it—and we expect to have the process in place in September.

The Board is committed to working with the President and the Boards of Trustees to identify the most capable and talented candidates to lead our remarkable institutions—and modifications to the Chancellor search process will do just that. Together, we are working to move our institutions—and the System—forward. Thank you.”

Patricia B. Kaemmerling and J. Bryant Kinney, co-chairs of the Western Carolina search committee, released their own statemet:

“Certainly, this is not the outcome we had hoped for, but Western Carolina University remains strong and well-positioned to continue to make great progress.We look forward to working with the WCU Board of Trustees, the UNC Board of Governors, President Margaret Spellings and the WCU campus community to ensure a successful search for our next chancellor. We are grateful to Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar, who has agreed to continue serving in the interim role, and to Dr. Carol Burton, who has agreed to remain as acting provost.

We are also immensely grateful to members of the search committee for their hard work and diligence on this search.”

Several faculty and staff members, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the board, said Monday that they are worried the announcement may mean the process may be politicized.

For several years faculty, staff and administration across the UNC system have expressed concern about the board taking a new, more aggressively conservative direction.

Environment

Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board could leverage local communities to pressure General Assembly for stronger laws

 

The 16-member board includes scientists, lawyers, public health experts and community organizers who are white, Black, Latinx and American Indian.

What the EPA won’t do because its leadership is beholden to polluting industries. What DEQ can’t do for lack of funding and political power. What many local governments refuse to do for fear industry will pass them over.

The state’s 16-member Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board is charged, if not explicitly, to do that. To wield political pressure, backed by the voices from their respective communities, and squeeze the General Assembly, federal and state regulators, and local planning and zoning boards to protect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color from the ravages of pollution.

“When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole?” said board member Veronica Carter at a meeting in Hollister last week. “We’ve got to figure out how to do something in the permit process or these communities will never have a chance.”

An environmental justice analysis is legally required in only one state program: The permitting of solid waste landfills.

Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman told the board that new landfills require an environmental impact analysis, which includes an assessment of the project on vulnerable communities. DEQ can deny a permit application for a new landfill if the  agency determines the cumulative impact disproportionately affects a minority or low income community.

There is no environmental justice requirement in the state for the siting of major air polluters, like wood pellet plants. Such a mandate would require the cooperation of the General Assembly, which under Republican control, has been loathe to add any environmental protections to the state law. In fact, legislators have rolled back many of the protections. Solid waste landfills now are allowed to operate under “life-of-site” permits, sharply curbing communities’ right to comment on the very operations that could contaminate the quality of their air, land and drinking water.

It’s also worth noting that the state’s Environmental Management Commission has significant rule-making authority. EMC members are appointed by the governor and House and Senate leadership. Rarely, if ever, does the EMC discuss environmental justice issues when it approves rules.

When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole? Click To Tweet

Board member Jamie Cole asked how the group could advise the Environmental Management Commission not only on justice issues but also on public engagement. The rule-making process can be byzantine and deeply steeped in science and legal minutiae; someone must be able to translate the issues into layperson’s terms. (Holman said EMC Chairman J.D. Solomon has requested to meet Environmental Justice board Chairman Jim Johnson Jr.)

Although political tides could turn in the next election, Regan also noted that any advances DEQ makes under his leadership and that of Gov. Roy Cooper could easily be undone under a different administration. “What should the legislative fix be?” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. “What should the General Assembly be required to do for legacy purposes?”

Regan also slipped inn a not-so-subtle criticism of previous DEQ secretaries John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart, who were appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. That administration routinely ignored environmental justice issues in its pursuit of being “business-friendly.”

“There is a lot willingness from staff to jump in [to address environmental justice],” Regan said. “A lot of this energy had been suppressed.” Read more

agriculture, immigration, News

More bad news for immigrant workers

While members of Congress seek to make the H-2A program cheaper and easier for employers by rolling-back worker protections, the US Department of Labor  continues to kick bad-actor employers out of the program. This week the USDOL’s Wage and Hour office in Raleigh announced that they had debarred two farm labor contractors from the H-2A guestworker programThis is just the latest in a series of such announcements, which underscores the flaws in the H-2A program.

The H-2A program allows employers to bring in foreign guestworkers to work in agriculture for up to 10 months.  By statute, H-2A visas are only supposed to be issued when importing foreign labor will not have an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of the local workers doing the same kind of work.  To that end, DOL has passed regulations which govern the test of the local labor market which employers must first do before being permitted to bring in visa workers.

Additional regulations govern how workers – both H-2A visa workers and U.S. workers – are treated on the job, including setting a minimum wage, a minimum hours guarantee, the requirement that employers provide free housing which meets minimum standards and that employers reimburse the foreign visa workers for their inbound transportation costs and the expense of obtaining their visa.   The reimbursement requirement is important because visa workers usually arrive in the U.S. to begin working with significant debt, making it difficult for them to afford basic necessities, unlikely to complain about dangerous or illegal working conditions, and vulnerable to human trafficking as discussed in several publications (Close to Slavery, No Way to Treat a Guest) and articles (The New American Slavery: Invited to the U.S., Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare; “All You Americans Are Fired”).

This week’s announcement from the Raleigh USDOL office comes on the heels of similar announcements in April and May.  Worldwide Staffing, LLC, another H-2A Labor Contractor, was debarred by USDOL in April for  failing to reimburse employees for inbound expenses, owing wages,  failing  to provide adequate cooking facilities and overcharging for meals.  In May, USDOL announced they had debarred Marisa Garcia-Pineda, an H-2A labor contractor, who owed $195,735 in backwages, had charged illegal recruitment fees, and failed to reimburse the workers, among other violations.  That is all just from the last few months and there will be more this year.  Kudos to USDOL, but these actions represent a very small fraction of the problem because they can only debar employers from the H-2A program in the most extreme cases.

Despite the well-documented history of abuse of workers in the H-2A program, efforts in Congress to roll-back worker protections are ongoing.  Representative Goodlatte’s terrible Agricultural Guestworker Act was part of more comprehensive immigration legislation that was recently voted down in the House, but apparently Speaker Ryan has promised to address farm-labor legislation this summer.  In addition, the Trump Administration is expected to introduce new proposed rules for the H-2A program which would make it cheaper and more appealing to agricultural employers while undermining the basic protections for workers.

Environment

DEQ slow its roll on approving methyl bromide emissions from proposed log fumigation; Royal Pest has dicey history

 

Sandy Hester and his daughter, Mary, implore state environmental officials to deny the air permit for a fumigation operation near Delco. “What you’re doing is insane,” Mary said. A public hearing and information session were held in May at East Columbus High School. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Two critical air permits involving methyl bromide are still under review by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, placing the companies’ plans for log fumigation on hold.

Royal Pest Solutions, based in New Castle, Del., and Malec Brothers, headquartered in Australia, had submitted applications for air permits last November. Although methyl bromide has been phased out in most countries because of its toxicity and its depletion of the ozone layer, there are exemptions. China, for example, requires logs entering its borders to be fumigated with methyl bromide to kill any invasive pests.

The two proposed fumigation facilities would export logs, most of them timbered in North Carolina, to China.

As Policy Watch reported in May, Malec Brothers proposed a log fumigation facility in rural Columbus County, near Delco and Riegelwood. That operation, which would be within a mile of a school, would emit 100 to 140 tons of methyl bromide each year, as much as 40 times more than the amount emitted from all sources statewide. Overwhelming community opposition prompted DEQ’s Division of Air Quality to slow down its review to further consider the public comments.

Division of Air Quality spokeswoman Sharon Martin said Malec Brothers has not amended its application to change emission amounts or controls. The company would place logs in large shipping containers, then infuse them with methyl bromide gas for 16 to 72 hours.

The containers would then be opened to allow any remaining gas to escape. The company’s air permit application stated that it would contain any excessive methyl bromide leaks using “sandbags and duct tape.”

As for Royal Pest Solutions, it has proposed a smaller facility at 476 Lees Meadow Road in Scotland Neck that would emit up to 9.5 tons of methyl bromide each year. Like Malec Brothers, that proposed operation would also use shipping containers for fumigation. However, according to Royal’s air permit application, the company would also use the tarp method. Logs would be piled on the ground, covered by a plastic tarp and fumigant would be injected inside. The emissions from the bulk piles beneath the tarp would be vented through a 30-foot stack.

Anne Bookout, vice president and general counsel for Royal Pest Solutions, told Policy Watch the company’s permit is still pending. “I understand that the regulators are not issuing any fumigation permits until they have resolved some of their internal issues with fumigation.”

The Lees Meadow Road neighborhood includes other industry, such as a lumberyard. But the facility would also lie a half-mile east-northeast of the Sylvan Heights Bird Park, a main tourist destination for Halifax County, as well as a quarter-mile from St. Matthew Holy Church. According to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen, of the 2,193 people who live within two miles of the proposed facility, 79 percent are from communities of color.

Emails obtained under the Public Records Act show that on May 1, Charles McEachern, an environmental engineer with the Division of Air Quality, told Bookout that “given the public hearing” for the Malec Brothers permit and “ongoing internal staff discussions” additional changes to the permit could be necessary. “At this time, your permit will be placed on hold,” in part, pending the” outcome of the Malec Brothers public hearing.”

In 2015, Royal was ordered to stop its fumigation operations at Suffolk County, Va., facility. The Virginia DEQ revoked the company’s air permit for failure to notify the agency before construction, anticipated startup, and actual startup. According to public documents, Royal also did not obtain a permit before construction; nor did it submit a Title V permit
application within one year of startup of the facility.

Last year, Virginia DEQ cited Royal’s Chesapeake, Va., fumigation operation, fining it $33,000 for violations of its air permit. Those violations included failure to meet any of the three minimum requirements: The company did not maintain a 300-foot zone that was off-limits to the public; it did not use a capture and control system for the fumigant; and it did not use monitoring equipment or methods to prevent levels of methyl bromide from exceeding approved concentrations in ambient air.