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Trump Now Leads the Education Dept.; What’s the Impact on Data and ESSA?

By Alyson Klein — January 24, 2017 4 min read
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Monday is the first full weekday that the Trump administration is in control of the U.S. Department of Education. And there are major questions about what the new crew—including some 150 political appointees, who have yet to be named—will mean for everything from the big data sets, like the Civil Rights Data Collection, to day-to-day work of the more than 4,000 career employees who stayed behind after the Obama administration cleared out last week.

Here’s a quick rundown on where things stand in Washington:

Who’s in Charge?

The department’s career staff is still running the show. That’s because Trump’s pick to lead the department, Betsy DeVos, hasn’t been approved by the U.S. Senate yet. The Senate education committee has delayed a vote on her confirmation, originally slated for Jan. 24, to Jan. 31, to give senators time to review her now-finalized ethics paperwork. Democrats, who lamented that they weren’t given enough time to question DeVos during her hearing last week, pushed unsuccessfully on Monday for another hearing so that lawmakers could ask her any questions that emerged from the paperwork.

Filling the secretary slot for now is a long-time career employee, Philip Rosenfelt, the deputy general counsel for program service in the office of the general counsel. Rosenfelt has worked on education issues since before there even was a U.S. Department of Education.

And career staff largely will be running the department until key players—like a deputy secretary, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, and assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy—are put in place. The transition team had finalists lined up for a couple of key positions. But we may have to wait and see what happens with DeVos’ nomination before those names are announced.

Meanwhile, sources say the Trump administration is collecting plenty of resumes, but waiting to name lower-level staff until top leadership is officially in place.

Trump Appointees

All told, the Trump team will have the opportunity to hire about 150 political appointees to work at the department. And if history is any guide, they may not all have a strong connection to education.

The department has had a reputation as a corner of the federal government for presidents to “stick campaign staff and other people who helped you get elected,” said Michael Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration.

Politicization tends to ramp up at agencies when there has been a big shift in power, or when the agency’s mission is starkly different from the president’s. That definitely is true in the cause of the Education Department, said Elizabeth Mann, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

The department also has had the second-highest ratio of career staff-to-political appointees of 28 Cabinet departments and major independent agencies, according to Mann who examined 2004 data from The Politics of Presidential Appointments, written by David Lewis and published in 2008. More in this story.

Disappearing Data?

Researchers are concerned about the possibility of data disappearing from the department’s website, or getting buried. And they’re worried that the incoming Trump team may not stringently enforce requirements that states and districts submit their data for the Civil Rights Data Collection. The Obama administration used that information to highlight disparities between poor and minority school districts and other districts on everything from chronic absenteeism to access to advanced coursework.

“Everyone would identify OCR [the officer for civil rights] as potentially at risk,” said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for education research groups. More in this great story from my colleague, Sarah Sparks.

There already have been changes at, which took down sections of its website devoted to climate change and civil rights. The revamped version of the website doesn’t include a section on education, at least not yet. Instead, it emphasizes many of the issues Trump talked about on the campaign trail, like an “America First” foreign policy, and “Standing up for law enforcment.”

There could be changes coming to the Education Department’s website, too, as the Trump administration puts its own stamp on the agency. That could mean less-prominent display for policy documents produced by the Obama administration in its final days, including for:

The Trump administration has already hit the pause button on some ESSA regulations. More on what that means here.

Immigration Worries

Speaking of data, school districts including Los Angeles Unified and Santa Cruz, Calif., have passed resolutions pledging not to hand over information to federal immigration officials.

And a number of privacy advocates suggest that districts may way want to minimize the amount of information they collect and store, particularly if it might lead to the discovery of a students’ immigration status. But that may come with some unintended consequences, like limiting districts’ ability to access federal funding, or track students’ progress overtime. More from our colleague Ben Herold here.

Follow us on Twitter at @PoliticsK12.

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