Access to a high-quality education starts with an unwavering belief in the potential of every child. Turning this belief into action means providing all children with a well-resourced education and challenging coursework in a safe and supportive school environment.
The Obama administration put students at the center of all education policy decisions, from making a monumental investment in saving education jobs to reinvigorating the role of the Office for Civil Rights as a watchdog for a more equitable public education system.
Funding for Educators and Students Amidst a Financial Crisis
On February 17, 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Recovery Act infused $97.4 billion into education, with preserving critical education jobs as the top priority. The vast majority of Recovery Act funds were quickly expedited to avoid major layoffs or hiring freezes that would have subjected students to ballooning class sizes and reduced public school programming.
Grant recipients reported over 300,000 education jobs, including those of teachers, principals, librarians, and counselors, were saved or created through the Recovery Act.
Exposing the Opportunity Gap
Moving away from compliance, the Education Department pursued a proactive, data-driven strategy to unveil the conditions of educational equity across schools and school districts. A reinvigorated Office for Civil Rights took initiative to investigate complaints, pursue compliance reviews, monitor schools’ activities, provide technical assistance, and issue policy guidance to schools, districts, and states.
For the first time ever, the Department collected and publicly shared data on educational quality and access that fully represents the nation’s 97,000 schools, 16,500 school districts, and 49 million students through the Civil Rights Data Collection. The data exposed clear gaps in educational opportunities across school discipline, access to preschool, teacher equity, and the ability to take and earn college- and career-ready coursework. The initial collection reported data from the 2009-10 school year with additional reports released for the 2011-12 school year and most recently the 2013-14 school year.
A reinvigorating Office for Civil Rights translated into real change for students. The rights of students were affirmed through the resolution of cases from coast to coast. In Hartford, Conn, parents of English learners were found to have inadequate enrollment access in comparison to their peers. In Minneapolis, Minn. and Lodi, Calif., the Department exposed binary discipline practices that discriminated against students of color who received harsher repercussions than white students for similar infractions. Ultimately, over the course of the administration, some 66,000 cases were resolved. These efforts were undertaken despite a near record low rate of 563 full-time employees in the Office for Civil Rights – less than half the number of staff in 1981.
Recognizing the Rights of All Students
The Obama administration went further than ever before in protecting the rights of students than any Education Department in our nation’s history.
Over thirty guidance documents issued to public education leaders and institutions gave a voice to families’ and students’ most adamant priorities – ensuring the rights of every student no matter their race, religion, gender, ability or socio-economic status. Among the more notable guidelines are those that swiftly addressed timely events impacting students and schools.
In 2015, shortly after President Obama issued an executive order on immigration that expanded legal rights for certain groups of immigrants, the Department released a resource guide on the legal rights and supports public schools must provide all children, including undocumented students. Per input received from constituents across the country, the guide focused on how to support undocumented youth in secondary and postsecondary settings. Earlier in the year, Justice joined the Education Department in issuing guidance that reiterated the rights of English learners to receive a high-quality education along with supplemental tools and resources to support schools in serving students and families with limited English proficiency. A separate resource guide on early learning and elementary education that featured promising practices for serving undocumented children and children of undocumented parents was released soon after.
Later that same year, amidst an outbreak of civil war in Syria with repercussions that are prevalent around the world, Secretaries King and Duncan collaborated on a guidance letter to administrators and educator, recognizing the need to address both student protections and free speech. In the letter, the Secretaries took initiative to address potential discrimination or harassment that may arise toward students who are, or are perceived to be, Syrian, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or Arab, as well as those who are Sikh, Jewish, or students of color. They urged schools to take thoughtful steps to create safe spaces for open and constructive dialogue while dealing swiftly with actions that create an unlawful hostile environment.
In 2016, the Education Department teamed up with the Justice Department to issue explicit guidance on equal rights to safe and supportive learning environments for transgender students. The guidance drew a clear line in the debate around gender-specific public spaces by clearly stating students’ rights to have additional privacy options in public school facilities. For example, students should be granted alternatives to shared bathrooms or changing spaces when there are other appropriate options available, including a conscious effort to create privacy within shared facilities. This guidance was recently rescinded under the current administration, defaulting determination of such protections to states and districts.
These exemplary guidelines were accompanied many other pertinent examples issued throughout the Obama administration’s tenure – strengthening educational services in the juvenile and criminal justice systems; supporting resources for children in foster care; understanding the needs of homeless students; and reinforcing the obligation of charter schools to ensure just admissions and disciplines practices, to name a few. The various guidance issued reflected a first-of-its-kind broad and inclusive effort to represent readily responsive and diverse protections for all students.
Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline
The Obama administration was the first to provide the public with guidance on discrimination in school discipline practices. Federal guidance urged local leaders to pursue discipline policies that keep students in the classroom, particularly students of color and students with disabilities who are punished more harshly than their peers.
Research shows that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to be held back a grade or obtain criminal records. The Education Department leveraged the Civil Rights Data Collection to expose bad practices and help guide federal efforts to promote alternative policies that lead to better outcomes for students.
In 2015, the Departments of Education and Justice hosted Rethink Discipline, a White House convening that attracted school district leaders, law enforcement practitioners, and justice officials from across the country. The Department of Education, in partnership with the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, used the event to release a comprehensive resource guide to help superintendents spur local efforts to improve discipline policy. The following year, the Education Department released a supplemental resource – ED School Climate Surveys, a free, easy-to-use, online platform where schools can input and assess information on local discipline practices. Accompanying the surveys was a Quick Guide on Making School Climate Improvements, which offered the basics on how to initiate, implement, and sustain school climate improvements. In compliment to the Education Department’s work, the Department of Justice launched the National Resource Center for School Justice Partnerships, providing schools, law enforcement agencies, and others with a hub of support resources for pursuing local-level school discipline reform.
Federal efforts to improve student outcomes through better discipline practices has sparked an important national dialogue about the role discipline plays in educational equity. The dialogue continues to play out today in schools, districts, and states across the country.
Accessing and Investing in a Quality College Education
Over the course of eight years, the administration put forth higher education policies and resources aimed at putting students on a path to college completion and the workforce. Starting in 2010, all new college loans were provided directly from the federal government instead of through costly privatized lenders. The shift by the Obama administration allowed for an unprecedented investment in student financial aid.
With the rising cost of college, it has become increasingly important for students to understand the value of a higher education degree. Two easy-to-use information resources – the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet and the College Scorecard – were created to empower families and students in making informed decisions about a given institution. Before signing on the dotted line or even submitting a college application, these tools allowed students to compare financial aid offers, overall tuition costs, graduation rates, loan default rates, the average amount a student borrows, and employment rates among various institutions.
Greater transparency became a trademark in improving higher education under the Obama administration. Easier access to information about various institutions included an adamant effort to expose bad actors through investigating and regulating unlawful behavior by degree-granting institutions. College and career training programs were challenged to make clear that their programming would meet students’ learning and career planning needs.
Gainful Employment regulations required career training and for-profit institutions to report information and data that ensures students earn a valuable degree. The regulations led to greater accountability by requiring institutions to provide key information such as program costs, whether or not students graduate, how much they will earn and how much debt they may accumulate, in order to qualify for federal student aid. Oversight of career training and for-profit institutions became a major priority within the administration’s higher education agenda as predatory practices were uncovered. For example, certain institutions were found to disproportionately target veterans in their recruitment practices in order to benefit from their government aid. To protect veterans and other students from such actions, the administration backed Congressional efforts to end the 90/10 rule, which served as the loophole that encouraged predatory recruitment practices.
The Education Department went event further to support veterans in pursuing valuable academic credit. Through a collaboration among the departments of Education, Defense, and Veterans Affairs, a task force was created to establish formal recognition of military experience as an academic asset. The task force led efforts to identify, foster and share promising strategies for translating military training into academic credit at higher education institutions, properly acknowledging the skills and knowledge military members bring to diverse fields of work.
The Department solidified its commitment to protecting all postsecondary students through the establishment of a broader Enforcement Unit. The Unit executes extensive reviews of high-risk institutions with more immediate and comprehensive responses to concerns raised by states’ and investigations by related federal agencies as well as complaints by students. Higher education protections led to actions against DeVry Education Group, Marinello Schools of Beauty, and Computer Systems Institute among others.
By investing in greater aid and exposing the cost, practices, and outcomes of degree-granting institutions, students have become more empowered to choose a school that best serves their interests and meets their individual needs.