When brand-new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was selected to lead the Education Department, her fans and detractors agreed on one thing: It would be really important to see who she put in other key roles, including the deputy secretary and assistant secretaries that oversee policy, innovation, civil rights, K-12 education, and more.
That’s partly because DeVos, a billionaire GOP donor and school choice advocate, comes from a nontraditional background. Unlike nearly every past education secretary, she’s never worked professionally in federal or state government, for a school district, or at a university.
And while her supporters say she has deep knowledge when it comes to vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of choice, she appeared confused during her confirmation hearing about other areas of education policy, including special education. That could make staffing all the more important.
So far, key roles haven’t been filled. To be sure, it’s still early going—the secretary herself has been on the job for just over a week. And a deputy could be named sometime soon. (Allan Hubbard, who worked on economic issues under President George W. Bush, is said to be a top candidate for the deputy role, typically the No. 2 position at the department.)
“I don’t think anyone should be alarmed at the speed, but given the process or lack thereof we’ve seen administration-wide and the contentiousness of DeVos’ confirmation it puts a premium on getting this next wave of hiring absolutely right,” said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which has received funding from DeVos’ family foundation. “If it’s slow but smart, everyone will be happy. If it’s slow and clunky, then there are going to be big concerns.”
Some Republican education policy experts including those who have worked in past GOP administrations, for GOP education leaders on Capitol Hill, or in states are reticent to jump into jobs in President Donald Trump’s Education Department.
These observers, who declined to speak for attribution given the sensitivity of the subject, worry that the administration has yet to find its organizational footing, citing reports of a chaotic governing process at the White House. Others aren’t sure they want to put in long hours for a secretary with a narrow area of focus who is already facing serious backlash among educators. And a few fear DeVos may not stick around long.
One person who the Trump team had reached out to said of DeVos. “She doesn’t have a vision” beyond vouchers, the Republican said. “I don’t want to go in not knowing what the full vision is.”
And another Republican who had mulled joining the administration said, “There’s a lot of anxiety around what this administration is going to bring, and some people may think it’s pretty risky to go into these roles ... There’s a lot of speculation about how long DeVos is going to last. Potential staff may question whether it’s worth the risk, whether taking a job for this secretary could cause collateral damage to reputations and future opportunities in education.”
For now, the list of names of folks on the “landing team"—the initial group of policy staffers—that has been circulated to civil servants at the department is heavy on folks whose background is primarily in politics or communications, including more than a half-dozen Trump campaign staffers, state GOP party staffers, and Washington, D.C.-based communications professionals.
There aren’t as many whose background is primarily education policy as opposed to politics or who have deep experience at a state education agency or school district.
Among the exceptions: Ebony Lee, who served at the department during the Bush administration and then worked on charter policy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Michael Brickman has worked in both politics (as the communications director for the Iowa Republican Party) and policy (as a policy adviser to Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis. and staffer at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute). Jim Manning, who worked in the department during the Bush administration, has a track record in government. Josh Venable, who has played a key role in the transition, has primarily worked in politics, mostly in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, but spent almost two years as the national director of advocacy and legislation at the Foundation for Educational Excellence, started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Another hire, Andrew Kossack, also did a seven month stint at FEE, and worked in education and government roles in Indiana, including as a deputy chief of staff to the state chief, Tony Bennett, and as an education aide to governor-turned-vice-president Mike Pence.
Starting out primarily with political players is not unusual at this stage of the process, but it will be a bigger deal if there still aren’t more policy folks—or people who have worked in school districts or at state agencies, in a few weeks, one Republican said. The Trump administration so far is “raising the bar on the lack of policy staff,” the Republican added. But that could change quickly as more hires are announced.
Some GOP sources in Washington have gone further, describing a chaotic hiring process, with different members of the Trump team calling about different positions over the course of weeks or months—at times it’s been unclear to some outsiders who is ultimately empowered to make the staffing decisions.
But another Republican has confidence that DeVos will make good personnel choices. “The people that have complained are the people that make their living off of who is in what place,” the source said.
And this source said DeVos and her team shouldn’t be expected to take a traditional approach to staffing the department. “You cannot look at this administration and apply the same principles that you would to any other administration. This is a totally out-of-the-box administration,” said the Republican.
DeVos’ goal is to make the department more efficient and innovative, the source added. “I think the people that are going to be tasked and selected, have to be willing to [be] entrepreneurial, be in some ways visionary.”
The Trump administration is also said to be taking a close look at revamping the department’s organizational flow chart, something that a number of incoming administrations have also done. Ideas on the table include reducing the number of deputy assistant secretaries, and getting rid of the undersecretary, a key role for higher education.
The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to requests to comment.
Staffing decisions are more than just inside baseball—they could have a real impact on the direction of the Trump administration on K-12 policy, Smarick said.
“Some people think this is just a Washington parlor game,” he said. But there are real implications for schools and state education agencies, he added. “This will determine what gets put in the $70 billion education budget. This will determine what the big school choice initiative is going to be and who is reviewing state accountability plans. These decisions matter as much as anything that the department is doing.”
Photo: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addresses Education Department staff, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, at the Education Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)