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Five Big Tasks for Betsy DeVos

By Alyson Klein — July 10, 2017 4 min read
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capital Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may not have much time for the beach this summer. She and her skeletal political staff will be spending the summer implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, looking for regulations to cut, and more.

Here’s a quick look at what’s on the secretary’s plate:

Hire staff

The secretary has been in office for more than four months, but the political ranks at the department are still really, really thin. So far, the White House has nominated just two people to fill Senate-confirmable slots. Plus, Jim Blew, the executive director of Student Success California, is expected to be tapped as assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy analysis.

But generally, the department has had bad luck with recruitment. Allan Hubbard, the former George W. Bush administration economic adviser who was slated to serve as deputy secretary, dropped out because of financial considerations. So did Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, who was expected to be named assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

And GOP hands with experience at the state and federal level simply don’t want to put in the long hours for a controversial secretary who doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda beyond school choice

That problem doesn’t seem to be going away, particularly as potential hires get more info about where the Trump administration wants to take K-12 policy. One former state leader who was considering a post balked after seeing the president’s budget request, which would eliminate money for teacher training and slash career and technical education funding.

For now, a lot of roles are being filled in an “acting” capacity, without official Senate sign-off. That includes Jason Botel, who is the acting assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, and Candice Jackson, who is acting assistant secretary for civil rights.

Approve ESSA plans

DeVos gets final say over whether state ESSA plans fly or not. So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans to implement the law. (The rest will file in September.) The department legally has just 120 days to get back to those early filing states with a final yay or nay. That means that, technically, DeVos is supposed to provide answers early fall for this first batch.

DeVos spent her first three months hitting the theme of local control hard, so most state officials expected it would be easy to get their plans approved. But then, in the first round of feedback letters, DeVos’ team told states that their goals for student achievement weren’t ambitious enough, and questioned whether states could use Advanced Placement tests and dual enrollment to figure out whether kids are ready for college and the workforce. (Her team didn’t bring those things up in subsequent letters to five other states, but there was still plenty of scrutiny.)

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, thought some of the department’s critiques went beyond the bounds of the law. And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a big fan of local control, said he’d be reviewing DeVos’ feedback closely, a sign that he may not have been so thrilled with how the secretary handled things. DeVos and her team sought to soothe worried states, making it clear they don’t have to change their plans based on the feedback. Now, many are confused about what to expect from DeVos and company when it comes to ESSA.

Sell school choice and big budget cuts to Congress

The Trump administration pitched tying some federal funding for disadvantaged kids to school choice. And the president has sought to create a new, $250 million private-school voucher program. There’s also been some hint of a possibility of a federal tax credit scholarship. But we have few details about how these things would work, even though Congress is slated to start considering the spending bills for the U.S. Department of Education this summer.

Complicating matters: The voucher program and a big proposed increase for charter schools included in the president’s budget would be paid for in part by big cuts to popular programs, like after-school funding and teacher quality, and a 13 percent cut to the department’s overall bottom-line. That hasn’t been an easy sell for DeVos—even in a Congress controlled by Republicans.

Cut red tape and downsize the department

DeVos and her team are working to comply with not one, not two, but three different executive orders aimed at slimming down the department, slashing regulations, and just generally shrinking the federal footprint. The first, signed by President Donald Trump on Feb. 22, called on agencies to take a hard look at regulations and get rid of those that are redundant, expensive, or burdensome.

DeVos and her team sent out a progress update on that work recently, outlining plans to meet with advocates and giving names of staff members on a regulatory relief task force. Another executive order, signed in March, calls on federal agencies to eliminate offices and programs that are redundant, unnecessary, or doing something that’s best left to the private sector. And in April, the department got its very own executive order, which called on DeVos to get rid of regulations that step on local control in education.

Hold a press conference

Okay, that may not be on the secretary’s to-do list. But we wish it was, if only so we can hear from her what kind of progress she’s making on all these different fronts.