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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Federal Opinion

New Year’s Resolutions for Those Moving Into the U.S. Department of Ed.

By Rick Hess — December 30, 2020 2 min read

It’s (finally) time to bid goodbye to 2020 and welcome a new year. In a few weeks, President-elect Biden will be sworn in. Among other things, that means it’s moving season for Trump appointees at the U.S. Department of Education and that Biden’s team will soon take charge. As the new crowd thinks about what’s ahead, it’s a propitious time to dust off these New Year’s Resolutions I penned four years ago for the benefit of Betsy DeVos’ soon-to-be staff. I think they’re broadly applicable this time around, too.

1. I’ll tell myself every day: “I’m no smarter than I used to be just because I’ve been hired as a federal bureaucrat.”

2. Because I know that serious people can disagree passionately and sincerely on heated educational questions, I’ll look askance at one-size-fits-all federal directives and instead work to give states and communities the ability to solve problems and own the consequences.

3. I’ll make sure there’s at least one day a month where I’m engaging with and listening to those who disagree with my views. So long as my critics offer me the same courtesy, I pledge not to simply dismiss them as “selfish,” “ignorant,” “misguided,” or “close-minded.” Rather, I’ll respect their willingness to speak up and keep in mind that hard-hitting exchanges can help keep me honest and grounded.

4. I’m in an office that I haven’t “earned” in any real sense and yet have a significant ability to influence the lives of millions of students, educators, and families. Thus, I’ll strive to remember that many of these people may disagree with me as to what’s “right” or in their best interest and to accept their criticisms and disagreements in good faith.

5. However frustrating it may be at times, I’ll keep in mind that the people who do the work in schools, communities, and colleges are usually far better positioned than I am to make judgments about “what works” for their students.

6. I will work to restore the federal role in education to one that respects the constitutional and statutory role of the U.S. Department of Education and I won’t be deterred by the sniping of self-impressed pundits, advocates, and former federal officials.

7. I will remember that it’s Congress’ job to write the nation’s laws, and that the job of executive branch agencies (like the Department of Ed.) is to execute those laws—not to rewrite them or impose their own.

8. I will tell well-meaning foundation staff eager to explore synergies, partnerships, and collaborations with the Department: “I value your work, but Washington should not be in the business of promoting foundation agendas or supporting particular foundation strategies.”

9. I won’t allow all the people sucking up and asking for my time to give me an inflated sense of self. I’ll remember that their affection isn’t actually about me; it’s about access, influence, and money. When I fear I’m forgetting any of this, I’ll call an old friend or colleague who will call bulls$%t . . . and remind me of what I used to say about self-impressed federal bureaucrats.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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