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Every Student Succeeds Act

Will ESSA Trigger Significant Layoffs at the Education Department?

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 17, 2015 2 min read
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You may remember that back when the U.S. House of Representatives passed its GOP-only reauthorization of federal education law earlier this year, it included language designed to cut staff at the U.S. Department of Education, proportional to the roughly 80 programs the House bill earmarked for elimination.

So how did that effort to give the Education Department staff list a haircut pan out in the Every Student Succeeds Act?

According to the new law, within 60 days of ESSA’s passage, the department must publish the number of full-time equivalent employees working on programs or projects that have been eliminated or consolidated since ESSA became law. And within a year of ESSA’s enactment, the U.S. Secretary of Education must reduce the number of full-time equivalent employees associated with those eliminated or consolidated programs or projects.

In addition, within that same one-year time frame, the secretary must tell Congress how many full-time employees have been let go, as well as the average salary of the full-time equivalent employees who have been let go.

It’s important to remember here that about 50 programs now overseen by the Education Department will, under ESSA, be consolidated into block grants for states. Some of those programs haven’t been funded by Congress in quite some time.

(Under ESSA, the department also has to publish the average salary of the employees who are still at the Education Department after those workforce cuts, disaggregated by employee function within each program or project.)

The language dealing with this staffing requirement can be located on pages 812-814 in the law.

Now, department leaders who don’t want to let staff go may not be totally boxed in by this language. For example, it’s possible that the secretary could create new staff positions that aren’t directly tied to a program or project, in order to keep current employees at the Education Department.

Still, the ESSA language does require the department to demonstrate “how the Secretary has reduced the number of full-time equivalent employees.” That’s more narrow than language that might have only focused on positions. So the bill does, at least in principle, preserve House Republicans’ attempt to reduce what they see as the department’s unnecessary bureaucracy. If the bill’s authors and backers have their way, the Education Department will have less to do under ESSA than they did in recent years, anyway. But how that turns out might depend at least in part on what regulatory process ultimately governs ESSA.

Right now the department has around 4,200 employees.

Observers with a different view might argue that state education agencies will need a lot of support and input from Education Department staff as they take on more responsibility under ESSA. Fewer staff might make that support harder for states to find, and harder for the department to give.