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Betsy DeVos’ Team Moves to Cut Political Positions, Merge Federal Education Programs

By Alyson Klein — February 16, 2018 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team are moving to revamp the Education Department. The goal? To make the agency more efficient, transparent, collaborative, and responsive to states, districts, and the general public, a department official said Friday.

The plan is part of a broader effort throughout the administration to reorganize government. Last year, President Donald Trump asked all cabinet secretaries to take a hard look at their agencies and to find places to streamline. A task force at the department has been working on this since last spring.

The plan represents DeVos’ long-range vision. Not all of it could be put into place right away. Some key pieces would require congressional approval, and the department is still figuring out which ones, the official said.

“It’s a vision statement as much as anything else,” said a department official. The official noted that the legislation that created the department was passed back in 1979. It doesn’t make sense, the official said, for the department to be operating in the 21st century using the “best thinking” of the late 1970s.

‘Do More With Less’

The plan calls for cutting down the number of political appointees at the department by about a third, from roughly 150 to 100, a department official said. And it would reduce the number of positions that require Senate confirmation.

“I think we owe it to public to do more with less,” the official said. The official noted that the number of career staffers has declined overtime, thanks in part to the federal hiring freeze: “Political appointees have to share in that burden.”

It would also reduce the number of positions that require Senate confirmation, the official said. DeVos has complained that the chamber is dragging its feet in approving Trump’s nominees for key posts at her department. However, she’s not the first secretary to experience this problem.

The biggest proposed change for K-12: moving the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which oversees programs dealing with charter schools and private schools among other things, into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the main K-12 office. This change would not require congressional sign-off. (Education Week previewed that change last month. The specifics of the broader department overhaul were first reported by Michael Stratford of Politico.)

The idea is to infuse innovation throughout K-12 programs, not confine it to one part of the agency, the official said. The plan also calls for “eventually” shifting the Office of English Language Acquisition into the broader Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. The thinking behind that: English-language learners are becoming an increasingly big slice of the overall K-12 population, so it makes sense that everyone working on K-12 programs would be focused on their needs, the official said.

The plan would also get rid of the Office of the Undersecretary. In past administrations, the undersecretary has been the No. 3 slot, in charge of post-secondary education programs.

It calls for combining the Office of Communications and Outreach with the Office of Congressional Affairs, to create a broader Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs. And it would merge the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, and some responsibilities of the Office of Management, the Office of the Deputy Secretary and the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development into a new Office of Finance and Operations.

It would also integrate the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education and the Office of Postsecondary Education into a single Office of Postsecondary and Lifelong Learning. And it would fold the Office of the Deputy Secretary into the Office of the Secretary.

The president’s budget for fiscal 2019 calls for cutting the department’s nearly $70 billion budget by $3.6 billion, or 5.3 percent. But the official said the changes aren’t intended to conform with proposed spending cuts.

“We would be doing this whatever the budget says,” the official said.

The Trump administration isn’t the first to seek to reorganize the department. In fact, most secretaries revamp the agency. The Obama administration, for instance, created an Office of State Support, aimed at improving monitoring.

Photo: Swikar Patel for Education Week.

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