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How Far Behind Is Trump in Staffing the Ed. Dept. Compared to Obama?

By Alyson Klein — October 16, 2017 5 min read
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President Donald Trump has finally, finally started to nominate people to fill the top political ranks at the U.S. Department of Education. Recently, for example, the White House announced its pick for deputy secretary (former South Carolina state chief Mick Zais) and for assistant secretary for career, technical, and adult education (Michigan state Rep. Tim Kelly.)

But the Trump team is still really behind the eight-ball when it comes to staffing 400 Maryland Ave.

How far behind? We went back and looked to see when the Obama administration named its picks for some of the agency’s top players. In just about every instance, it was months ahead of the Trump crew.

What difference do these delays make? We asked U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about it last month. “It’s certainly made it challenging for all of those who are there to really carry a much greater burden of responsibility than [they would] otherwise,” she said. DeVos said she has made some staffing decisions and the president has signed off on them. She blames paperwork delays for the slow pace of filling key roles.

Meanwhile, advocates for state chiefs and district officials have told us they’d really like to see the department staff up.

Here’s a score-card to show how Trump’s pace of hiring compares to his predecessor:

Deputy Secretary: The No. 2 person at the Education Department, typically oversees the offices of management, innovation, K-12 education and more.

Trump nominated Mick Zais on Oct. 3. Zais must still be confirmed by the Senate. Obama nominated Anthony Wilder Miller, the director of Silver Lake, a private investment firm, on April 29, 2009.

Gap: About five months

Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Analysis: Typically plays a leading role in helping to craft new initiatives, such as Race to the Top (in the Obama era) and presumably school choice in the Trump years.

Trump nominated Jim Blew, the director of Student Success California, an advocacy organization, on Sept. 28. The Senate must still confirm him to the post. Obama tapped Carmel Martin, a former aide to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, on Jan. 30, 2009.

Gap: Almost eight months

General Counsel: The department’s top lawyer

Trump nominated Carlos Muñiz, a former Florida deputy attorney general, on March 31. His nomination is pending in the Senate. Obama nominated Charles P. Rose on March 18, 2009.

Gap: Less than two weeks. So not that long, actually.

Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs: The department’s liaison with Congress

Trump nominated Peter Oppenheim, a former aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, on June 5. Obama nominated Gabriella Gomez, an aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., then the chairman of the House education committee, on March 19, 2009.

Gap: About two-and-a-half months

Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical and Adult Education: Oversees the office responsible for career and vocational education.

Trump nominated Tim Kelly, who chairs the K-12 policy committee in the Michigan legislature, on Sept. 30. Obama tapped Brenda Dann-Messier, an adult educator and former Clinton administration official, on July 14, 2009.

Gap: About two-and-a-half months.

And Trump still needs to fill these positions:

Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education: In charge of pretty much everything K-12 related, including, these days, implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Obama nominated Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, the superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District, on May 19, 2009. Trump has yet to tap someone for this position, although Jason Botel, a deputy assistant secretary, is filling it temporarily. He’s come under fire from Alexander, for his handling of ESSA. And he is expected to move out of the role, although sources say the White House may have delayed the timeline for that change. Frank Brogan, the former lieutenant governor of Florida, is said to be a top contender for this position.

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights: Oversees investigations into school districts and colleges that may be impeding students’ rights, including the rights of historically overlooked groups

Obama nominated Russlynn Ali, the vice-president of the Education Trust, on Feb. 4, 2009. Candice Jackson, a lawyer and the author of Their Lives: The Women Targeted By the Clinton Machine, a deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, is serving in the role temporarily in the Trump administration. She’s come under fire for telling the New York Times that “90 percent” of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol and breakups.

Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach: Messaging guru

Obama nominated Peter Cunningham, a Chicago-based communications pro, for this job on Jan. 30, 2009. Right now, Nathan Bailey is essentially filling this job for the Trump team, although his title is communications manager.

Assistant Secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement: This office oversaw school choice programs during President George W. Bush’s administration and programs like Investing in Innovation during the Obama years.

Jim Shelton, a former Gates Foundation official, was in this job by March 29, 2009. The Trump team hasn’t announced a political appointee to fill it, even temporarily.

Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services: The special education chief, who oversees implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Obama tapped Alexa Posny, the former Kansas commissioner of education who had been in a similar position in the Bush administration’s education department, for this role on Oct. 8, 2009.

Director of the Institute of Education Sciences: Heads up the department’s research arm.

Obama tapped John Q. Easton on April 2, 2009. Trump hasn’t named anyone yet. (Rumor: We heard that more than a dozen people have been offered this job and said thanks, but no thanks.)

Image by Evan Vucci/AP, Getty, and Education Week

President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Nov. 10, 2016. Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.