The U.S. Department of Education is a 40-year-old agency that has 3,672 employees and an annual budget of $68,000. Its main function is to establish policy for, and coordinate federal assistance to, education.
The agency has “historically been mostly a compliant, grant-administering department,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, a non-profit think tank focused on domestic policy and urban affairs.
“Its role is to give out federal funding and then, to some degree, monitor schools that spend it.”
But “DoEd” was criticized as soon as it was born. President Carter created the agency in 1980 to elevate existing education programs from earlier administrations, but Ronald Reagan, who was running for president then, criticized it as a “giveaway” to the national teachers’ unions.
Over the years, it has also been criticized for federal overreach, with many people arguing that states and communities don’t need to be told how to run their schools.
The Trump administration has been consistent in its support for school choice and contempt for federal education policy. In 2015, the presidential candidate told a Fox News reporter: “I may cut the Department of Education,” and in his book “Crippled America,” he wrote, “A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach. Education has to be run locally.”
While his plan to merge the department with the Department of Labor hasn’t yet received congressional approval, the agency has seen major budget cuts and a vast rollback of Obama-era regulations that protected transgender students, held back for-profit colleges and advised colleges on how to respond to sexual assault. Last year, the department’s Office of Civil Rights invented a new protocol to dismiss claims of civil rights violations, which they considered “burdensome” to the office.
Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education since Feb. 2017, has been at the helm of these decisions. Her nomination itself was a subject of concern because of her support for programs that would pull resources from public education and stifle diversity, and her lack of experience in public education. At her confirmation hearing, she made controversial statements about guns having a place in schools due to the threat from grizzly bears.
“She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” said Ben Miller, former senior policy advisor in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy at the U.S. Department of Education. “You can’t fake years of actual work experience learning the details with having written a bunch of cheques.”
It’s clear when she talks about issues related to education, says Miller, that there’s not a lot of depth behind what she’s saying. “If she had to stray off her talking points, she would immediately find herself in hot water, which is exactly what happened at her confirmation hearing.”
In some respects, he thinks, she’s a useful foil for the Trump administration. “But she’s also having serious downstream effects on the quality of staffing at the department. She’s so embarrassing that people don’t want to work for her.”
On Jan. 8, the department published a press release announcing at least thirty “new hires”, which usually only happens when there is a change in administration or when career staffers reach retirement age.
“There’s been a big exodus of career staff who have worked under many different administrations — Republicans, Democrats — who just can’t handle this one,” said Amy Laitinen, former policy advisor on higher education at both the Education Department and the White House. “My colleague who’s not of retirement age now works at the National Student Legal Defence network, because he said it’s just so bad there.”
“The administration sees [career staffers] as the enemy, which is feeding in to their deep-state narrative. If you’re a career staffer, you know you’re signing up to work with different types of administrations, but this administration is so beyond the pale.”
Recently, the department made two major policy rollbacks: rescinding gainful employment, which ensured students make enough money to pay off debts, and borrower defense repayment, which protected student borrowers harmed by their colleges. Both the rules had been opposed for years by congressional Republicans and the for-profit sector.
Policy experts say that these are two among several harmful moves made by the department since 2016. Between the beginning of the Trump administration and April of last year, its overall size reduced by at least 13 per cent, according to a study by Inside Higher Ed. Department officials attribute that to attrition, resulting in the hollowing out of the institutional core and working knowledge of the agency.
“Ultimately, it’s a radical deregulatory agenda that’s going to hurt students — some of the most vulnerable students — and the agency itself,” said Laitinen. Many of the new appointees, she said, are people with far less expertise and career knowledge than the federal agency requires.
“Frankly, I don’t know if it will ever recover. It’s much easier to break something than to build it.”