Some questions:

Is there any chance for another COVID relief package before the election?
How has the rush to fill the Supreme Court vacancy in October affected the congressional agenda?
Why is the Trump Administration upping its attack on anti-racist educational materials?

Washington Update, September 25, 2020


Dear Colleagues:

The shifting tides in Washington seem to be more monumental than ever these days - and just 38 days out from the election! I can't imagine what surprises October has in store for us.

1. Passing of RBG Alters Landscape Moving Forward in Congress

The sudden passing away of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg a week ago -- and the subsequent immediate determination by President Trump that he would move a nominee to fill the vacancy quickly -- have altered the DC landscape dramatically.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) quickly assembled the 51 votes he needs for confirmation of her replacement.  Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsay Graham (R-SC), has indicated that confirmation hearings for the new nominee may take place the week of October 12.  All roads lead to a final floor vote in the Senate before the November 3 election, possibly on Halloween.  The Democrats will be unable to block this vote. The only way it could fail is if 3 Republican Senators oppose the nominee.  Two have indicated that they are opposed to this vote prior to the election (Sen. Collins of Maine and Sen. Murkowski of Alaska), but the elusive third appears out of reach. 

These developments may have sidelined talk of a new COVID relief bill, though efforts at resuscitation remain, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Steve Mnuchin from the White House as the key negotiators.  A short-term funding extension (Continuing Resolution) was adopted in a bipartisan vote by the House Tuesday night.  The Senate is expected to follow suit next Tuesday or Wednesday, thus avoiding a government shutdown when the Fiscal year ends September 30.  The bill extends funding until December 11, setting up another confrontation during the lame duck session.

Members of the House hit the road today going home to campaign, with Senators expected to follow next week.  They could be called back to consider a COVID relief bill if an agreement is reached, or to take a vote on the new Supreme Court nominee.  Other than that, they are likely to be out of session until the lame duck, which will reconvene in mid-November.  Note that Senate confirmation hearings in the Judiciary Committee for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will proceed even though the Senate is technically out of session. 

2. Trump's Assault on Anti-Racism Initiatives as "Anti-American Propaganda" Continues, as Does the Response

Last week I provided an overview of the Trump Administration’s efforts to root out “Divisive Anti-American Propaganda” and end “left-wing indoctrination”  – which appear to be efforts to push back against educational initiatives intended to address racism head on.  This week President Trump doubled down by issuing an executive order to federal agencies directing them to root out trainings, grants and contracts which may promote a “destructive ideology” that is designed “to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people” or are “inherently sexist and racist…appearing in workplace diversity trainings and across the country.”  The Executive order provides examples, including from the Argonne National Laboratories, which has used training materials stating that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America.”   The order notes that such trainings “promote division and inefficiency.” 

The order goes on to list 9 “divisive concepts” which must not be supported by federal funds and orders all agency heads to review grants, contracts and trainings and report back to the Office of Management and Budget in 60 days for grants and contracts and 90 days for Federal employee trainings.  The review process will take place for both higher education and K-12 grants and contracts and any related staff trainings.

On the higher education side, more than 80 universities signed onto a letter urging the Trump Administration to end its probe against Princeton University.  The Trump Administration claims that Princeton may be violating assurances it has signed as a condition of receiving federal funds.   Those assurances are related to practicing non-discrimination. Princeton has issued a call to “combat systemic racism” which was interpreted by the Administration as admitting racist practices. Michael Roth of Wesleyan University said,  “The Department of Education’s action against Princeton is a cynical political stunt that misrepresents the admirable efforts of an institution that, like so many of us in higher education, is striving to do better.”

On the K-12 side, The National Council for the Study of Social Studies released a statement noting that the organization “resoundingly rejects any effort by the federal government to silence social studies curriculum that explicitly addresses the centrality of slavery in the historical narrative of the United States.”  

The Zinn Education Project, which offers lessons and professional development based on the work of historian Howard Zinn, issued a statement saying “With a White House that on numerous occasions has defended white supremacy, it is more important than ever that educators of conscience uphold the right to teach a people’s history – a history that looks honestly at social injustice and at the movements that have sought to make this a more equal society.”  Grace Leatherman, executive director of the National Council for History Education, said “Loving your country doesn’t mean ignoring the parts of it that are hard.”

President Trump’s specific targeting of critical race theory and the New York Times’ 1619 Project appear to directly violate federal law.  The Every Student Succeeds Act explicitly prohibits the federal government from telling schools what to teach. The federal government cannot reward or punish schools when they use a particular curriculum.  A 2017 Trump executive order expands on this mandate, noting “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to protect and  preserve State and local control over the curriculum program of instruction, administration, and personnel of educational institutions, schools and school systems.”  The order further directs the Secretary of Education to examine whether federal regulations or guidance “comply with Federal laws that prohibit the Department from exercising any direction, supervision, or control over areas subject to State and local control, including…the curriculum or program of instruction of any elementary and secondary school system.”  The about face coming from the White House is surely a whiplash moment.

This week the California Department of Education responded to President Trump’s tweet threating to withhold funds from schools using the 1619 project as part of their curriculum.  “I don’t know how else to say it, I thought that the president’s tweet was just ridiculous and reckless and irresponsible to in any way suggest that schools would somehow have their funding threatened for simply teaching the history and the facts that racism has existed in the country and that there are deep impacts from slavery,”  said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. 

California has also announced a new initiative – the Education to End Hate Initiative – intended to empower California’s students and teachers to “confront the hate, bigotry and racism rising in communities across the state and nation,” the State Department of Education  said. 

This unleashed frenzy attacking anti-racism educational practices is undoubtedly part of the Trump re-election strategy.  It will be interesting to see if it bubbles up during one of the upcoming presidential debates and/or continues to expand in the coming days before the election.

3. First Presidential Debate Next Tuesday September 29

Clear your calendar for next Tuesday evening 9 PM ET and tune in to the first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden.  This week the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the topics for the debate.  The topics were chosen by Chris Wallace of FOX News who will moderate the debate. They are:

Two additional Presidential debates are scheduled.  On October 15, Steve Scully of C-SPAN will moderate and on October 22 Kristen Welker of NBC will moderate.  Vice Presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris will face off on October 7.

4. New Resources for Educators

In closing I want to honor the contribution and acknowledge the loss of a special education pioneer, Jim Smith.  So many came before us to build the foundation for what we do now, and we are grateful.  Heartfelt condolences to Jim’s widow, Deb Smith – also a pioneer in special education who, among her many contributions, focused our attention on the shortage of special education faculty in higher education – a challenge that continues.  Jim and Deb both have long histories with the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education.  Jim was among the founders of HECSE and the keynote speaker at the very first convening of the organization in 1977.  Deb was HECSE President from 1991-93 and continues to provide invaluable guidance and information to the organization.  Prayers and hugs to you dear friend and colleague, Dr. Deb Smith.  RIP Dr. Jim Smith – a life well lived. 

Be well and take care of yourselves and each other.

See you on Twitter @janewestdc


Jane E. West Ph.D.
Education Policy Consultant
Cell: 202.812.9096
Twitter: @janewestdc

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