The Ed. Dept.'s Been Pared Back. Here's What That Means for States

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Winter Meeting in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Winter Meeting in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.
—Jose Luis Magana/AP

Does push for efficiency leave states in the lurch?

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In an online video interview last year, television personality John Stossel drew U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' attention to rows of empty desks as they walked through the Department of Education.

DeVos made it clear she sees a streamlined staff as a feature of her administration, not a bug. She's made it clear to managers that, "If you're going to make a case to hire more people, you better have a really good reason," she said.

That extends to the main office for K-12 policy, charged with overseeing billions in funding for K-12 schools, most of it aimed at vulnerable children. The office of elementary and secondary education lost nearly 14 percent of its staff between the end of the Obama administration in January 2017 and the midpoint of the Trump administration at the start of this year.

OESE has also gone through a top-to-bottom reorganization that consolidated some smaller offices within the agency and merged K-12 with the office of innovation and improvement, which oversaw charter school grants and other programs. The goal, according to a department spokeswoman: to make OESE, which is in charge of implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, more efficient and to enable its staffers to look at the various grant programs it handles more holistically.

For the Trump administration, a streamlined department is a step toward shrinking the federal footprint on K-12 and allowing states and districts to take the lead, since they are closer to the students and, in the administration's view, can best serve their needs.

But civil rights advocates have serious concerns about whether a smaller team can adequately ensure that states are following federal rules for the most-vulnerable groups of students, including poor children and those of color.

Shrinking Staff

The U.S. Department of Education has seen a reduction in staff overseeing K-12 education in the past two years. That includes career staffers and political appointees. The drop in full-time staff positions comes amid changes at the department, including the office of innovation and improvement being folded into the office of elementary and secondary education.

Political Appointees

January 2017: 15
January 2019: 9

Career Staffers

January 2017: 294
January 2019: 258

And there are big questions about how the changes—especially the staff reductions—are affecting the department's core "customers": state officials, who often look to the federal government for technical assistance and to explain ESSA, a relatively new and often murky federal law.

Some state officials say they haven't noticed much difference between their interactions with staffers during the Obama administration and the Trump years, and they attribute any changes to ESSA, which turned over a lot of decisionmaking authority to states.

But other officials describe long waits for answers to technical questions, harried staffers, and a lack of overall support and technical know-how, including when it comes to improving the lowest-performing schools.

In the past, "you'd reach out to a program officer and you'd get timely responses to inquiries," said one state official who, like five others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity to speak candidly about interactions with the department. "Now what we're seeing in some instances is that responses are going unanswered for months at a time."

But others say they can't tell the department has slimmed its ranks—and that the new leeway gives them room to make progress on their own priorities.

"I'm enjoying the flexibility to get our legs underneath us," said Matthew Blomstedt, the commissioner of education in Nebraska, which has recently made changes to testing and other areas. He thinks the department hasn't veered from its mission of working to protect vulnerable children. Officials pushed Nebraska hard on its ESSA plan, one of the last to be approved, he said. "I give them credit for making us think a bit harder about the equity charge under [the law]."

'Dear Parent' Letters

For her part, DeVos appears proud that her agency has focused its efforts on educating families about the law, issuing, for instance, a parent guide to ESSA, rather than reams of guidance for state officials.

"Instead of 'Dear Colleague' letters, I much prefer 'Dear Parent' letters," she told the National School Boards Association last month, according to prepared remarks. "I encourage you to lead within your state. Embrace the freedom ESSA allows and the freedom for which many of you fought."

The Education Department did not respond to questions about how state officials perceive its interactions with agency staff.

Ary Amerikaner, who served as a deputy assistant secretary in OESE during the Obama administration, worries that the thinning ranks may jeopardize the department's ability to support states in educating historically disadvantaged students and to provide needed oversight.

"As a civil rights advocate, I know that some state leaders are trying to do the right thing, and I'm worried for them that they are not getting answers from the department that are allowing them to move forward," said Amerikaner, who is now the vice president of P-12 policy, practice, and research at the Education Trust, a civil rights organization. "History tells us some state leaders are not trustworthy when it comes to vulnerable kids, and we need the federal government to be playing their role as watchdog. Without sufficient bodies, the OESE can't do either of those things well."

But Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the Education Department during President George W. Bush's administration, said now that ESSA has turned over much decisionmaking authority to states "there's not a ton for those folks to do, or at least there's not as much for them to do."

"Those staff cuts reflect an administration that really is not trying to lead when it comes to K-12 education," said Petrilli, who is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank. "They do not see it as their role to have a vision of what school improvement looks like or how [federal funds] should be spent or what the next set of reforms should be at the state and local level."

Dwindling Morale

The total number of staff members in the elementary and secondary education office has dropped from 294 career staffers at the end of Obama's tenure to 258 midway through Trump's term, in part due to attrition. And the number of political appointees, such as deputy assistant secretaries, has fallen, too, from 15 at the end of the Obama administration to nine about midway through Trump's term.

One potential reason for the departures: a dip in employee morale. The department ranks dead last among 27 midsize federal agencies when it comes to employee job satisfaction, according to a December report from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service that ranks "the best places to work" in the federal government.

What's more, a separate report administered by the Office of Personnel Management earlier this year, found that morale had slipped at the Education Department. Only 61 percent of employees felt the agency was successfully completing its mission in 2018, compared with 73.2 in 2016, before the Trump team took office.

The current leaders at the department "really see the role of [the agency] as one of compliance, to only hold states accountable for what is in the law," as opposed to helping them look beyond it, said one recently departed department employee. "There's a space for leadership that's just going to be a void."

It's clear that career staffers are trying to do more with less—but they are largely succeeding, one state official said.

"You can definitely tell they're stressed and busy and trying to cover way more than they probably can handle. But at least the folks that we work with have done everything they can to get back to us." The official said the department is responding to states within the time limits set by ESSA, "but it definitely is taking every last second of what they've got."

An official in another state said the department has been responsive to any questions asked, but the official's state has largely steered clear of asking the federal government for help or clarification.

"I think in some ways that's an approach that many states are taking, to not necessarily ask a lot of questions," the official said.

'Making This Stuff Up'

Some state officials, though, say things are slipping through the cracks.

For instance, one state official said the department didn't provide clarity on how to distribute a federal grant until deep into the school year. That created a "potential mess," the official said.

State officials also say they could use more clarity on parts of ESSA they are not getting now from the federal government, particularly on pinpointing research-based solutions for low-performing schools—what the law calls "evidence-based interventions."

"There's not enough support coming from the federal government in terms of what constitutes acceptable interventions," one official said. "We've had to do a lot of [professional development] on our own on how to vet evidence."

This official's state wants to make sure its districts are only spending school improvement dollars "on things that are proven to work," this official added. But without clear direction from the department, districts are pushing back on the state's efforts to impose stricter standards for what constitutes a school improvement strategy backed by evidence, the official said.

An official in another state has had largely positive interactions with department staff but still sees the leeway as a double-edged sword.

"It's good to have flexibility, but then you really are making this stuff up," that official said. "I would like to have some guidance because I imagine their guidance is research-based."

This official wishes the department were more proactive, offering additional assistance on things like college-and-career readiness, prekindergarten, serving English-learners, and strategies for fixing low-performing schools. That's something former staffers say is harder to do with fewer hands.

"That's what we try to do for districts, anticipate the needs," the official said.

But others see the changes as welcome—and say they may not go far enough yet.

"There's still a little bit of a disconnect between the appointees and the career," an official from another state said. "In general, we appreciate less prescriptiveness. I think it's going to take some time for the general ethos of the DeVos regime—less prescriptive, more-hands-off—to actually spread to the people doing the work."

Melissa McGrath, the chief of staff for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state school chiefs, said the interactions have been smooth.

Related Blog

"CCSSO has maintained a productive working relationship with the U.S. Department of Education, and they have been responsive to our organization."

Christopher Ruszkowski, who until recently served as secretary of education in New Mexico, said he felt like the ESSA plan process offered states "healthy scrutiny." But he's worried the department's hands-off attitude could lead it to approve changes to plans that water down accountability. (The state's new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, has pledged to make big changes to the ESSA plan Ruszkowski put in place.)

"I don't think [the department] should be given a pass when states start to create lower expectations for teachers and lower expectations for students, when they start to not hold students accountable for performance," he said.

Vol. 38, Issue 23, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: February 27, 2019, as K-12 Staff Pared Down at Ed. Dept.
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