U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team are moving to revamp the agency she’s overseen for just over a year, with a stated goal of making it more efficient, transparent, collaborative, and responsive to states, districts, and the general public.
The undertaking 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 find places to streamline. A task force at the U.S. Department of Education has been working on that directive 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, a department official said, who requested anonymity because it is not his job to talk to reporters.
“It’s a vision statement as much as anything else,” the official said, noting that the legislation creating the department was passed 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, the official said.
“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 over time, 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 that 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 responsibilities, into the office of elementary and secondary education, the main K-12 office. That change would not require congressional sign-off.
The idea is to infuse innovation throughout K-12 programs, not confine it to one part of the agency. The plan also calls for “eventually” shifting English-language acquisition into the broader elementary and secondary education office. The thinking behind that: English-language learners are an increasingly bigger 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 plan would also get rid of the undersecretary’s office. In past administrations, the undersecretary has been the No. 3 slot, in charge of postsecondary education programs.
It calls for combining the communications and outreach office with the congressional-affairs office, to create a broader office of legislation and congressional affairs. And it would merge the chief financial officer, and some responsibilities of the management office, the deputy secretary, and planning, evaluation, and policy development, into a new finance and operations office.
Moreover, the blueprint calls for integrating career, technical, and adult education as well as postsecondary education into a single office of postsecondary and lifelong learning. And it would fold the parts of the deputy secretary’s office into that of the secretary’s.
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.
Marshall Smith, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under five presidents from both parties, sees the proposal as a mixed bag.
He’s not sure it’s a smart move to merge the office of innovation with the office of elementary and secondary education, given that technology is driving so much change in both K-12 and higher education.
“This is an extraordinary period, they ought to have in that office an extraordinary person running it,” Smith said.
But he likes the idea of melding the offices that deal with post-secondary education and career and technical education. Both are relatively small offices, Smith said, and their missions are closely related.
And he thinks that cutting down on the number of political appointees is a smart move. Many political appointees don’t have the same expertise as career staffers and tend to have a high turnover, Smith said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as Several Ed. Dept. Offices Target of Reorganization