Federal

What Would a Merged Education and Labor Department Look Like?

By Alyson Klein — July 13, 2018 9 min read
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President Donald Trump’s proposal to scrap the U.S. Department of Education and merge it with the Department of Labor reflects the administration’s priority on workforce readiness and career development. It is likely to require a heavy lift on Capitol Hill, if past proposals are any guide.

The creation of a Department of Education and the Workforce, which the administration proposed June 21, aims to help the nation’s schools catch up to counterparts in other countries that handle both issues in one agency, including some that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited on a recent swing through Europe.

“I saw such approaches during my first international trip as the U.S. secretary of education to schools in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom,” DeVos wrote in an Education Week commentary that appears in this issue. “Each country takes a holistic approach to education to prepare students for career and life success.”

But congressional Democrats overwhelmingly panned the proposal, which would almost certainly need their votes to pass. Republicans said the idea is worthy of consideration but haven’t introduced legislation to make it a reality.

Attempts to get rid of the Education Department, or to mesh it with another agency, go back decades. In 1981, the Reagan administration tried to bust the department down to a subcabinet-level agency, to no avail. And former Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., pitched a similar plan back in 1995. That plan also failed to gain traction.

Educators and advocates are highly skeptical of the latest proposal.

One local superintendent worried about the message it sends.

“I continue to be fearful that by burying the [Education Department] in another agency, the message is basically, ‘You can all go home,’ ” said Eugene Schmidt, the superintendent of the Farmington Municipal Schools district in New Mexico, referring to educators.

The two national teachers’ unions; AASA, the School Superintendents Association; and Educators for Excellence have all blasted the plan as unnecessary at best, and an assault on students’ rights at worst.

Elizabeth Mann Levesque, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution, worried a new and broader agency would have all the same mandates and responsibilities of the agencies it replaced—with potentially fewer staff members and resources to carry out its mission.

“It could mean fewer people doing the same amount of work, which isn’t necessarily a good thing from an implementation standpoint, for students and parents who rely on the federal government to enforce laws which are designed for their benefit,” she said.

And other educators worried the move sends a message that education is only about preparing students for the workforce, not enrichment.

Meanwhile, some conservatives aren’t sure the proposal would actually lead to a reduced federal footprint.

While she believes the plan is well-intentioned, Lindsey Burke of the conservative Heritage Foundation says she is concerned that the plan could actually lead to Washington policymakers trying to exert more and not less influence over schools, in the name of helping the labor market.

“I’m skeptical that merging Labor and ED will result in downsizing,” said Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the think tank. “It just seems like the Department of [Education], plus all this labor stuff now.”

Broad Scope

The Education Department opened in 1980 and was intended to give education—both K-12 and postsecondary—Cabinet-level stature, alongside the Pentagon or the Department of the Treasury. The Education Department, which has roughly 4,000 employees and a budget of about $70 billion, has been described by some critics as “the world’s biggest bank.” That’s because one of its primary functions is overseeing student loans and grants. Those grants can be targeted for K-12 or higher education, and go to states, districts, schools, or even directly to students.

The department also has a research arm, the Institute for Education Sciences, and an office that’s charged with making sure schools and colleges respect students’ civil rights, the office for civil rights. And the education secretary has a national bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the administration’s policy prescriptions for K-12 and higher education.

Even before Trump’s plan was announced, DeVos and her team had been working behind the scenes on their own plan to reorganize the department.

So what the most pivotal offices in the agency for educators? And how would they change under Trump and DeVos’ proposals?

Institute of Education Sciences

What it does: IES is the department’s research and statistical arm. The National Center for Educational Statistics, which collects key facts about schools nationwide, is housed in IES. The office is also charged with administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Who’s in charge: Mark Schneider, a Trump appointee, is the director of IES.

What would happen in a reorganization: Under Trump’s proposal, the office’s duties would be moved to a new Research/Evaluation/Administration office, which would also include programs from the former Labor Department.

Office for Civil Rights

What it does: OCR’s mission is to “ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights,” according to its website. The office is charged with enforcing statues including the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Anyone wanting the office to look into a particular violation can file a claim, which will be investigated. OCR may direct the school or college to take certain steps to remedy the problem.

Who’s in charge: Ken Marcus, a Trump appointee, is the assistant secretary for civil rights.

What would happen under a reorganization: Under Trump’s proposal, the office would move to a new Enforcement subagency, along with worker-protection agencies from the former Labor Department.

Office of Elementary and Secondary Education

What it does: This office oversees core K-12 programs. It is made up of eight smaller offices that deal with academic improvement, early learning, Impact Aid, Indian education, migrant education, the Safe and Healthy Students program, School Support and Rural Programs, and an office of state support. Key programs include Title I grants to help educate disadvantaged students and Title II grants aimed at improving teacher quality.

Who’s in charge: Frank Brogan, a Trump appointee, is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

What would happen in a reorganization: Trump’s plan to merge the Education and Labor departments calls for the creation of a K-12 subagency that would appear to have a similar role to the office of elementary and secondary education. Separately, DeVos’ own reorganization plan would remake the current office, creating three new offices instead of the eight in place now, and would focus on administration, grants management, and “effective practices.”

Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development

What it does: This is office is essentially “wonk central.” It helps advise the secretary on policy development, performance measurement and evaluation, and budget processes and proposals.

Who’s in charge: For now, Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, is overseeing this office. Jim Blew, a Trump nominee and a former director of Student Success California, a state-level advocacy organization, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate soon.

What would happen in a reorganization: Under DeVos’ own reorganization plan, some of the responsibilities of this office would be shifted to a new finance and operations office.

Office of English Language Acquisition

What it does: The office administers grant programs to support the teaching of English-language learners, invests in research and evaluation studies to help boost achievement of ELLs, and disseminates information about policy, practice, and research for ELLs.

Who’s in charge: José Viana, a Trump appointee, is the assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition.

What would happen in a reorganization: Under Trump’s reorganization plan, this office would move into the K-12 subagency. DeVos’ own reorganization plan calls for potentially eliminating it and absorbing it into the officer of elementary and secondary education.

Federal Financial Aid Office

What it does: This office administers need-based financial aid for students in postsecondary education as well as grants, direct loans, and work-study, for both undergraduate and graduate students.

Who’s in charge: Jim Manning, a Trump appointee, is the chief operating officer for federal financial aid.

What would happen in a reorganization: Under Trump’s reorganization plan, the office would become part of a new subagency focused on research, evaluation, and administration.

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

What it does: The office works to improve outcomes for students in special education and adults with disabilities. Among other programs, it administers state grants for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Who’s in charge: Johnny Collett, a Trump appointee, is the assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services.

What would happen in a reorganization: Under Trump’s reorganization plan, the office would become part of the new K-12 subagency.

Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education

What it does: The office administers and coordinates programs related to adult education and literacy, career and technical education, and community colleges.

Who’s in charge: Michael Wooten, the deputy assistant secretary for community colleges, is the acting assistant secretary for this office. Scott Stump, a former assistant provost of career and technical education with the Colorado Community College System, has been nominated to fill the role permanently.

What would happen in a reorganization: Under Trump’s reorganization plan, the office would become part of a new subagency focused on the American Workforce and Higher Education Administration. Separately, DeVos has proposed merging the office of postsecondary education with the office of career, technical, and adult education to create an office of postsecondary and lifelong learning.

Office of Postsecondary Education

What it does: The office administers grant programs aimed at improving the academic quality, management, and fiscal stability of colleges, as well as programs to help disadvantaged students become college-ready, such as TRIO and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP.

Who’s in charge: Kathleen Smith, a senior adviser to the secretary, is the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

What would happen in a reorganization: Under Trump’s reorganization plan, the office would become part of a new subagency called the American Workforce and Higher Education Administration. Separately, DeVos has proposed merging the current postsecondary education office with the office of career, technical, and adult education to create an office of postsecondary and lifelong learning.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Inside a Merger Plan for Ed., Labor Depts.


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