Researchers ponder K-12 education policy under President Trump

School of Education doctoral students consider potential impact of Trump initiatives on students receiving special education services

As Americans watch the first decisions of the Donald Trump administration, VCU School of Education doctoral students are focusing on potential changes to education policies for students with disabilities.  

A January installment of a webinar series, hosted by the school’s Research to Disability Advocacy (RTPA) doctoral-training project, explores the possible outcomes of initiatives such as a proposed uptick in funding for school choice programs and dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

The webinar, “Deconstructing The Presidential Elections: Results, Policy Implications, and Disability Advocacy in the New Trump Era,” is one of many learning tools in the doctoral program, which focuses on training future university faculty to produce research that would guide education policy.

Cassandra Willis, a 20-year educator in Richmond and Henrico public schools, believes the webinar helped her to become a better researcher because it was facilitated by instructors with real-world experience.

“The webinar was an effective learning tool,” Willis said. “When you have a program like [Research to Disability Advocacy], you learn from people from different walks of life, with different experiences. It’s very beneficial.”

Tuition for RTPA’s 11 students is paid through a 5-year grant of nearly $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education. Students are enrolled in the traditional Special Education and Disability Policy concentration of the Ph.D. in Education, but receive additional knowledge and skills to guide their development as policy advocates and researchers.

Policy shapes the classroom

Colleen Thoma, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Counseling and Special Education and the principal investigator of the RTPA project, wanted her students to realize that repealing the ACA and shifting more federal education funding to school choice programs could take finite resources from students with disabilities.

Colleen Thoma, Ph.D.
Colleen Thoma, Ph.D.

School choice programs propose the use of a voucher system that would allow students to use public education funds to attend charter and private schools, with the goal of providing more options. Charter schools are publicly funded and established by parents, teachers or community groups and governed by a charter with national or local authority. They are not required to follow the same laws or accountability requirements as traditional public schools.   

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to become Secretary of Education, has been a strong advocate of school choice in her home state of Michigan. During his campaign, Trump pitched a $20 billion school choice voucher program for poor students attending low performing public schools. That could endanger federal funding allocated to public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That act is currently not fully funded, Thoma said.

"The IDEA guarantees an adequate and free education for all students with disabilities," Thoma said. "We have never had the IDEA funded to the level that was promised. [Under Trump's plan], we would have to reallocate money that is put other places in education."

Thoma, who works with nationally recognized education policy consultants Michael Gamel-McCormick and Jane West, said children with disabilities may not have the same competitive advantages outside public schools.

“There are pros and cons about supporting charter schools versus putting more money into public schools,” Thoma said. “Students with disabilities often are unable to get into charter schools, which don’t have to follow all the same laws and regulations. They don’t have to guarantee that students with disabilities have the same educational rights that are required under IDEA.”

Thoma also expressed concerns that policies outside education, such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, could impact individuals with disabilities of all ages.

“In terms of employment, I think Donald Trump has the potential to do more to create jobs and make our policies and laws more employer friendly,” Thoma said. “On the flip side, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed without a replacement, we are going to see some problems — the issue of providing insurance for people with pre-existing conditions hits individuals with disabilities especially hard. Prior to this provision of the Affordable Care Act, there were people with disabilities who couldn’t find anyone to insure them or their families.”


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