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What Do Continued Education Dept. Vacancies Mean for ESSA?

By Alyson Klein — May 19, 2017 4 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is in the thick of reviewing the very first round of state plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But the Trump White House has been slow to fill positions throughout federal agencies, including at the Education Department. For now, a number of important roles have been temporarily taken by deputy assistant secretaries who are acting as assistant secretaries.

And two other key roles—the deputy secretary (who typically oversees operations), and the assistant secretary of planning, evaluation and policy (typically the Chief Wonk) haven’t been filled by political appointees, even temporarily. (We wrote about the reasons that the department has been slow to hire and the implications for school districts back in February.)

So how much do the thin ranks matter when it comes to the mammoth task of examining and approving ESSA plans?

Experts admit that’s tough to gauge, since we don’t know what the outside peer reviewers (aka the folks examining the ESSA plans) are going to say about each state’s proposal.

But if the reviewers want to turn a state down, the lack of permanent political staffers could become an issue, some experts say, since the secretary has final say over state plans.

Having fewer staffers—and few with official Senate confirmation—means a lot of more work for each individual, said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a think tank that supports rigorous standards and state flexibility.

“The people who are there are drinking from a firehose,” Petrilli said. “There are fewer people to deal with the issues that come up.”

For instance, he said, there may be pieces of the ESSA plans “that people think don’t live up to the letter of the law.” California, for instance, is still working on a methodology for identifying its bottom 5 percent of schools—an ESSA requirement—while keeping in place an accountability dashboard. The department will have to decide if what the state comes up with passes ESSA muster, and some decisions could be subjective.

In other administrations the folks in as-yet-unfilled roles—the deputy secretary and the assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy—would be key players in those kinds of decisions, as would the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, a role being temporarily filled by Jason Botel, a former principal, charter founder, and state education advocate who doesn’t have formal Senate confirmation.

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the department, doesn’t expect the vacancies to have an impact on the plan review process. She said any suggestion otherwise would be a “misunderstanding of the process.”

“There is a very strong and robust team in Office of Elementary and Secondary Education that has thoroughly, efficiently, and expeditiously worked with 16 states and the District of Columbia to reach the point at which all 17 submitted plans are complete. The plans are ready for a full peer and department review. The department will continue to work to thoroughly and efficiently throughout the remainder of the process,” Hill said in an email.

Already, states such as Maine have added information to plans that were found to be incomplete in order to qualify for peer review.

To be sure, much of the early work will likely be done by the department’s career staffers, said Lauren Bauer, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project who served in the early days of the Obama administration.

“Where something is unclear or a state’s plan is inadequate, it is typically be up to politicals to interact with the state around those issues,” she said.

And things could be complicated by the fact that most of the folks working at the highest levels of the department, except for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, haven’t been confirmed by the Senate.

The Trump administration “may have a process, but it’s with a bunch of people who are pretty young and junior” and haven’t received Senate sign-off, Petrilli said. “If they make some decision that folks on the Hill disagree it could certainly could become an area of some conflict and contention ... I think they’ve hired some smart people, but they are not terribly experienced. You’ve got the JV team, and we’re still waiting for the varsity team to be [put in place]. I think the JV team is doing a pretty great job, but if they don’t get the varsity team in soon we’re going to see more conflicts with the Hill.”

So what exactly is going on with those unfilled roles, of deputy secretary and assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy?

Allan Hubbard has been said to be a top contender for the deputy role for months. And sources say he made it through a White House vetting process back in March. But he’s said to still be undergoing other background checks. The Trump White House has been unusually slow in announcing appointments to key subcabinet positions, not just at the Education Department but throughout the federal government. (More from the New York Times here.)

As for the assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy, there have been plenty of names in the rumor mill, but no nomination and no one temporarily filling the role.

The assistant secretary of planning, evaluation and policy has been a key player in past administrations. Carmel Martin held the job at the beginning of the Obama administration and took a leading role in developing and implementing the School Improvement Grants, Race to the Top, and the No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

For now, Ebony Lee, the deputy chief of staff for policy, is one of DeVos’ chief policy gurus, helping to lead much of the ESSA work. Before coming to the department, she was at the Gates Foundation working primarily on charter school policy.

Oh, and another job that’s gone unfilled? The assistant secretary for communications and outreach, a pretty important position for reporters.

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