Education Department Facing Culture Shift Under Trump

While no stranger to politics, Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. secretary of education, has never worked professionally at a federal agency, on Capitol Hill, or in public schools.
While no stranger to politics, Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. secretary of education, has never worked professionally at a federal agency, on Capitol Hill, or in public schools.
—Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP-File
| Updated: January 19, 2017
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A presidential transition always triggers some makeover at federal agencies. But when President-elect Donald Trump's team takes power this month, the transformation of the U.S. Department of Education could be particularly striking.

The incoming president and his team have promised to change the culture—or "drain the swamp"—in Washington, with serious implications for the federal bureaucracy. And on the campaign trail, Trump pledged to get rid of the Education Department—or at least cut it "way, way down."

That would be a tough political lift, even with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. But the sentiment has triggered plenty of anxiety about the kind of resources and attention the department can expect from the new administration.

Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick for education secretary, is a longtime advocate of school choice, including private school vouchers. But DeVos, a prominent GOP donor, doesn't have a significant record in other areas that fall under the department's purview, from oversight of special education funding and English-learners to student loans for college.

It's too early to say just how much will change at the Education Department when Trump takes office at noon on Jan. 20. But conditions are ripe for a culture shift.

Steering the Ship

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Betsy DeVos as education secretary, but some other appointed positions in the U.S. Department of Education also carry significant weight in setting the policy course for the next four years. Here’s a look at some of the current positions and their responsibilities, though Trump could refashion the organizational chart.

Politicization of federal agencies tends to ramp up when Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party and after a big, recent turnover in power, as is the case now, said Elizabeth Mann, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, who has studied how federal-state relations shape K-12 policy.

And politicization, she said, also "increases when the agency is further ideologically from the president. You definitely have that" in the case of the Education Department and Trump.

That doesn't mean the department's day-to-day business is going to shift dramatically overnight, said John Hudak, who is the deputy director for the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings.

"Betsy DeVos is not going to completely redesign the way the Education Department works," he said. Trump, he added, has nominated a number of Cabinet officials who, like, DeVos, have more experience and familiarity with business than government.

If she's confirmed by the U.S. Senate and assumes the helm at the department, he said DeVos will likely find that "the secretary of education is not the CEO of the Department of Education." That is a very important distinction, Hudak said.

Unlike some past education secretaries, who had served as governors or as district or state schools chiefs, DeVos hasn't led a big bureaucracy.

Though DeVos is no stranger to politics—she chaired the Michigan Republican Party for about a half a dozen years—she hasn't worked professionally at a federal agency, on Capitol Hill, or in public schools.

DeVos' background and views make her either a "breath of fresh air"—the description used by William Hansen, who served as deputy secretary of education under President George W. Bush—or "outside the norm," as Carmel Martin, an assistant education secretary under President Barack Obama, put it.

But the two agree that the Trump administration's picks for key top positions in the department will also say a lot about its direction.

In particular, the deputy secretary, the undersecretary, and the assistant secretaries overseeing civil rights, elementary and secondary education, and planning, evaluation, and policy could be pivotal players. It could take weeks or even months for all those appointees—most of whom will need to be confirmed by the Senate—to be in place. That means senior career staff will temporarily step up to fill their roles, including, if need be, the secretary's. Before leaving office, former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. tapped a career employee, Philip H. Rosenfelt, the deputy general counsel for program service in the department’s office of the general counsel, to serve as the temporary acting secretary.

Top appointments will "send a strong signal both from a management standpoint and a [policy] standpoint," said Hansen, who is now the president and CEO of USA Funds, a nonprofit that promotes college preparation, access, and success.

Besides DeVos, the Trump team has already made one other important personnel pick of interest to educators: Rob Goad, who took leave from his position as an education aide to Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., to serve with Trump's campaign, has been tapped as an education adviser on the White House Domestic Policy Council. Messer is one of the most prominent champions of school choice in Congress.

Longtime Tensions

But the top players are just a small fraction of the 150 political appointees who will join the department. The agency also has more than 4,000 career staff members, who handle everything from monitoring states' and districts' use of Title I aid for disadvantaged students to maintaining the agency's website.

The department's employees, most of whom are career staff, are, on average, more seasoned and better-educated than their colleagues at other agencies, Mann said. She noted that 47 percent of department employees have an education beyond a bachelor's degree, compared with an average of 27 percent across all Cabinet-level agencies. And 58 percent have worked for the federal government 10 years or longer, compared with an average of 54 percent across Cabinet-level agencies.

There are almost always tensions between the career staffers and the political appointees, no matter which party is in charge, especially at the beginning of an administration, people who have served in each of those roles said.

Some political appointees are told not to trust the career employees, said Zollie Stevenson, who served as the director of student achievement and school accountability programs, a career position. "We were viewed as the folks who would slow things down."

That is a counterproductive misperception, said Stevenson, who is now the acting vice president for academic affairs at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. Lack of input from civil servants—who often have a better understanding of how states and districts operate—hindered implementation of some major initiatives, he said, including the No Child Left Behind Act's guarantee of free tutoring for students in struggling schools.

Tom Corwin, who spent decades as a top career employee on K-12 budget issues, said he didn't think political appointees came in with an "instinctive distrust" of the career staff. "But you had to prove yourself," he added.

President-elect Donald Trump greets Betsy DeVos, his pick for education secretary, during a rally in Michigan. If confirmed, she would be part of the tidal wave about to sweep through Washington as political appointees take over key policy positions in federal agencies.
President-elect Donald Trump greets Betsy DeVos, his pick for education secretary, during a rally in Michigan. If confirmed, she would be part of the tidal wave about to sweep through Washington as political appointees take over key policy positions in federal agencies.
—Paul Sancya/AP-File

The department also has had the second-highest ratio of career staff-to-political appointees of 28 Cabinet departments and major independent agencies, according to Mann, who examined 2004 data from The Politics of Presidential Appointments, written by David Lewis and published in 2008.

And it's unclear how many of those political appointees will have a strong connection to education. The department has had a reputation as a corner of the federal government for presidents to "stick campaign staff and other people who helped you get elected," said Michael Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration.

Those appointees can gum up the works, added Petrilli, who is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank.

"These people are looking for things to do, so they end up getting involved in the day-to-day affairs of the agency," he said. "That just slows everything down."

But Jim Kohlmoos, who served as a deputy assistant secretary in the department under President Bill Clinton, said he liked having such a big team of political hands—it meant more capacity.

Bureaucratic Crackdown?

Members of the new administration—and the Republican-controlled Congress—have signaled that Trump may handle the federal workforce differently from recent presidents.

Trump said during the campaign that he wants a hiring freeze at most agencies. Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the House committee that deals with government oversight, have indicated they want to make it easier to fire poor performers.

The House of Representatives also recently revived the so-called "Holman rule," developed in 1876 and named for an Indiana congressman. It can give individual lawmakers the power to make changes to spending bills that cut specific agencies or programs, and even target a particular employee's salary.

The situation reminds Corwin of the start of Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1981, when the Education Department was brand-new.

"Reagan was the scariest [transition] because he had pledged to get rid of the department and was bringing in people who weren't favorable to the mission of the agency," said Corwin, who served under every president from Reagan to Obama in his decades at the department. "There was a lot of apprehension."

In the weeks after the 2016 election, there were concerns that Trump's ascendance to the White House could kick off a succession of retirements at the department—and with them, a loss of institutional knowledge. But that hasn't happened, at least not yet, said Corwin, who is now a senior adviser at the Penn Hill Group, a Washington lobbying firm.

"I haven't been invited to any retirement parties," he joked.

A bigger worry: If the federal government, including the Education Department, becomes a less attractive place to work, it could turn off younger employees who might otherwise become the next generation of senior civil servants.

"Scaring off young people who are committed to public service could be devastating," Hudak said.

Related Blog

Even if there isn't a spate of departures or retirements, Trump's "drain the swamp" rhetoric could worsen tensions at the department between political appointees and the career staff that serves under them.

But Kohlmoos said he expects that, once they take office, members of the Trump team may see the value in the civil servants.

"I think once people face the realities of what it means to govern, as opposed to campaign, there'll be a greater appreciation of federal bureaucrats," said Kohlmoos, who is now a principal at EDGE Consulting, which works on education issues and is based in Arlington, Va. By the end of the Clinton administration, he said, "you'd be in a meeting and you couldn't tell who was political and who was career."

Vol. 36, Issue 18, Pages 1, 18-19

Published in Print: January 18, 2017, as Ed. Dept. Facing Culture Shift Under Trump
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