With Key Positions Still Open, Staffing at Ed. Dept. Lags

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Eight months into his term, President Donald Trump is finally picking up the pace of nominating staff members to serve in the top ranks of the U.S. Department of Education. But he's still way behind the Obama administration in filling the agency's vacancies.

By this point in 2009, Obama had announced a nominee for every K-12 position in the department that requires Senate confirmation, an Education Week analysis has found. Trump, by contrast, has only tapped five of the dozen or so key players he needs to run the department.

So far, Trump has picked Mick Zais, a former South Carolina state chief, for deputy secretary; Jim Blew, a former state advocate who used to run the Walton Family Foundation, for assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy analysis; Peter Oppenheim, a former aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., for congressional relations; Tim Kelly, a Michigan state lawmaker, for career and technical education; and Carlos G. Muñiz, a former Florida deputy attorney general, as general counsel.

But other key positions, including the assistant secretaries for elementary and secondary education and civil rights, are being filled by temporary players. Both of those positions were filled within the first several months of the Obama administration.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos blames the slow pace in part on paperwork delays.

"I've made decisions and the president has signed off on many of those decisions," she said in an interview. "It's the process of paperwork with the FBI and the [office of government ethics] that has taken months and months and months."

The vacancies have placed extra stress on the staff already in place, she added.

Heavy on State-Level Experience

Nearly all the people named to top posts at the department so far have some sort of experience at the state level, said Andy Smarick, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington.

Zais is a former South Carolina state chief. Kelly is a state lawmaker. Muñiz worked as deputy attorney general in Florida. Blew has worked at state-level advocacy organizations, including 50CAN and StudentsFirst, a state level organization started by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

And even Oppenheim, who spent much of his career on Capitol Hill, worked to give states more influence over K-12 policy as a key aide writing the Every Student Succeeds Act.

"Every other administration I know in Washington, they hired a lot of people who were part of the D.C. orbit," said Smarick, who worked in the department during President George W. Bush's administration. By contrast, "they are loading up on people with state-level experience. So the question becomes 'what are they going to do with all of that experience. Everyone in high-level meetings may say 'let's trust states.' " Or, he said, they may use their state-level contacts to champion choice at the local level.

Another connecting theme: ties to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. DeVos herself used to sit on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the research and advocacy organization Gov. Bush started. Zais was a vocal supporter of Bush's 2016 presidential bid. Carlos Muñiz, the nominee for general counsel, worked for Bush as a deputy general counsel.

Some of the usual suspects in Washington didn't want to join the Trump administration or work for a secretary as controversial as DeVos.

"There's a lot of anxiety around what this administration is going to bring, and some people may think it's pretty risky to go into these roles," said one source who had been approached about a job at the department earlier this year. "Potential staff may question whether it's worth the risk, whether taking a job for this secretary could cause collateral damage to reputations and future opportunities in education."

Vol. 37, Issue 10, Page 22

Published in Print: October 25, 2017, as With Key Positions Still Open, Staffing at Ed. Dept. Lags
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