DeVos pre­vails in ef­forts to shrink Ed­u­ca­tion Dept.

Hun­dreds of work­ers are shed; ad­min­is­tra­tion is slow in fill­ing key roles

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY MO­RIAH BALINGIT AND DANIELLE DOU­GLAS- GABRIEL

The sev­enth floor of the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment’s head­quar­ters near the Mall used to bus­tle. Now, nearly a dozen of­fices sit empty and quiet.

The de­part­ment’s work­force has shrunk un­der Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos, who has said she wants to de­crease the fed­eral govern­ment’s role in ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions and en­force­ment of civil rights in schools. In all, the de­part­ment has shed about 350 work­ers since De­cem­ber — nearly 8 per­cent of its staff — in­clud­ing po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees. With buy­outs of­fered to 255 em­ploy­ees in re­cent days, DeVos hopes to show even more staff the door.

At the same time, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has moved slowly to fill key roles, mak­ing nom­i­na­tions for just eight of the 15 key po­si­tions that re­quire Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion. The Se­nate, which has taken an av­er­age of 65 days to con­firm nom­i­nees, has ap­proved only two of those nom­i­nees, giv­ing the de­part­ment one of the worst track records among Cab­i­net-level agen­cies for fill­ing se­nior po­si­tions, ac­cord­ing to data from the Part­ner­ship for Pub­lic Ser­vice.

The re­duc­tion of the de­part­ment’s work­force re­flects the chal­lenge of fill­ing se­nior po­si­tions when even right-lean­ing aca­demics are re­luc­tant to work for Pres­i­dent Trump and DeVos’s be­lief that the fed­eral govern­ment should tread more lightly in U.S. schools. And it is em­blem­atic of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to re­duce the size of the fed­eral work­force over­all.

“Sec­re­tary DeVos has made clear since day one that her goal is to re­turn con­trol of ed­u­ca­tion back to states, lo­cal­i­ties and par­ents,” said Nathan Bai­ley, a de­part­ment spokesman. “The sec­re­tary is build­ing a strong team of ex­pe­ri­enced lead­ers who will help Amer­ica re­think school and fo­cus on im­prov­ing stu­dent achieve­ment.”

But cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials with the de­part­ment ex­press con­cern that the loss of staff will com­pro­mise the de­part­ment’s abil­ity to per­form key func­tions, such as en­forc­ing civil rights law and aid­ing debt-bur­dened stu­dents de­frauded by for­profit col­leges.

“The De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion is al­ready hugely un­der­staffed for the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties Congress has del­e­gated to it, as ev­i­dent in the ram­pant fraud that has fes­tered in the pro­grams it over­sees,” said Bar­mak Nas­sirian, di­rec­tor of fed­eral re­la­tions and pol­icy anal­y­sis at the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of State Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties. “Cut­ting this agency would be penny-wise and pound­fool­ish. We would lose bil­lions to out­right fraud and mis­man­age­ment and end up ru­in­ing mil­lions of peo­ple’s fi­nan­cial lives.”

The Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment has the small­est staff of the 15 Cab­i­net agen­cies, with 4,059 full­time em­ploy­ees in its District head­quar­ters, 11 re­gional out­posts and 13 field of­fices. A ma­jor­ity of the re­gional and field staff are in the Of­fice of Fed­eral Stu­dent Aid, Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral and Of­fice for Civil Rights, ac­cord­ing to the de­part­ment. These are the of­fices that in­ves­ti­gate dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints or ad­min­is­ter grants and loans to col­lege stu­dents.

DeVos sought to cut $9.2 bil­lion from the de­part­ment’s bud­get of $68.2 bil­lion, elim­i­nat­ing teacher train­ing and col­lege-prep pro­grams for im­pov­er­ished chil­dren while in­vest­ing heav­ily to ex­pand school choice through in­creas­ing funds for char­ter schools and pos­si­bly of­fer­ing vouch­ers for pri­vate schools. Congress has sig­naled it is likely to re­store many of the cuts, but DeVos is em­pow­ered to trim staff. Her pro­posal would cut 154 po­si­tions from the de­part­ment — in­clud­ing 46 from the Of­fice for Civil Rights, even though its work­load has grown sig­nif­i­cantly as dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints have risen to record lev­els. In the bud­get pro­posal, the de­part­ment said the staff re­duc­tion would mean each in­ves­ti­ga­tor would han­dle more cases — 42 in­stead of 26.

DeVos has sought to scale back the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Of­fice for Civil Rights, with staff di­rected to nar­row the scope of their in­ves­ti­ga­tions. DeVos also has rolled back key pieces of Obama-era civil rights guid­ance, in­clud­ing one that out­lined how schools should in­ves­ti­gate sex­ual as­sault.

Bai­ley said DeVos’s de­ci­sion to cut civil rights staff should not be con­strued to mean she does not value them.

“The sec­re­tary has also made clear her com­mit­ment to en­hanc­ing the core roles of the de­part­ment, in­clud­ing pro­tect­ing civil rights. Staffing head counts are not a proxy for fo­cus or pri­or­ity,” Bai­ley said.

Cather­ine Lha­mon, who headed the civil rights of­fice from 2013 un­til the start of this year, said she wor­ries about how staff will han­dle that ex­panded work­load.

“It is cat­e­gor­i­cally not ten­able to ef­fec­tively man­age a caseload of 26 per per­son,” Lha­mon said. “The pro­jec­tion of 42 cases per per­son is hor­ri­fy­ing to me.”

DeVos also has of­fered buy­outs in a bid to shrink the de­part­ment. Peo­ple within the de­part­ment have been asked about their du­ties as the de­part­ment seeks to trim and re­or­ga­nize the work­force, ac­cord­ing to staff who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not per­mit­ted to speak pub­licly about the mat­ter.

In a memo ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post last month, the de­part­ment said it will of­fer early re­tire­ment and vol­un­tary buy­outs to some of the 1,400 peo­ple in the stu­dent aid of­fice. It is not the first time buy­outs have been of­fered in the de­part­ment: The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fered them to 349 em­ploy­ees in 2010 at the height of the re­ces­sion.

Other fed­eral agen­cies, in­clud­ing the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, are us­ing vol­un­tary buy­outs to shrink their work­force and com­ply with Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der to down­size the govern­ment. But staffing at the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment is al­ready dwin­dling, and crit­ics say push­ing out peo­ple in the stu­dent aid of­fice seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive as the fed­eral port­fo­lio of stu­dent loans climbs past $1.2 tril­lion.

The de­part­ment has a back­log of more than 87,000 ap­pli­ca­tions for stu­dent debt relief that are be­ing re­viewed by just 14 staff mem­bers, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple within the agency who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials may re­as­sign more staff to that team, but peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter say lead­er­ship in the Of­fice of Fed­eral Stu­dent Aid and the Of­fice of the Gen­eral Coun­sel lack the will to ex­pe­dite the process.

At least 10,000 claims for debt relief have been rec­om­mended for ap­proval but are lan­guish­ing. Those fa­mil­iar with the is­sue say there is no con­sen­sus on a path for­ward.

The de­part­ment has a con­spic­u­ous num­ber of va­can­cies at the top. With just two peo­ple con­firmed for key po­si­tions, the agency lags far be­hind the four pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions — each had nom­i­nated and re­ceived Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion for at least 11 peo­ple by early Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the Part­ner­ship for Pub­lic Ser­vice, a non­par­ti­san govern­ment watch­dog that tracks po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees.

In the in­terim, the de­part­ment has filled va­cant roles with act­ing staff or ca­reer em­ploy­ees who have been forced to take on two or more roles, in­clud­ing Candice Jack­son. Crit­ics called for her res­ig­na­tion af­ter she told the New York Times that “90 per­cent” of cam­pus sex­ual as­saults in­volve drunken re­gret. Jack­son apol­o­gized.

Sen. Patty Mur­ray ( Wash.), the rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate Health, Ed­u­ca­tion, La­bor and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee, as­sailed DeVos for mov­ing so slowly to ap­point key staff.

“Sec­re­tary DeVos’s nom­i­na­tion hear­ing made it clear she does not have the ex­pe­ri­ence or ex­per­tise to run the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion in a way that would help stu­dents,” Mur­ray said. “But in­stead of sur­round­ing her­self with ex­perts and ad­vo­cates, she has left crit­i­cal po­si­tions un­filled, or al­lowed con­tro­ver­sial and un­fit in­di­vid­u­als like Candice Jack­son to serve with­out un­der­go­ing the scru­tiny of a Se­nate vet­ting process.”

Ob­servers say the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion faces un­usual chal­lenges in ap­point­ing key staff in part be­cause the pool of qual­i­fied can­di­dates — con­ser­va­tives with a deep back­ground in ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy — is small. And many of those who check those boxes said they are un­will­ing to work for Trump be­cause they are dis­turbed by his con­duct and worry it will sully their ré­sumés.

“I def­i­nitely had per­sonal mis­giv­ings about join­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tion where I have se­ri­ous con­cerns about the moral lead­er­ship,” said an ed­u­ca­tion re­searcher and pro­fes­sor who had been tapped for a high-level post. He even­tu­ally with­drew be­cause he was dis­gusted by Trump’s cam­paign rhetoric, “not just ad­mit­ting to but brag­ging about com­mit­ting sex­ual as­sault [and] mock­ing in­di­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties over the course of his cam­paign.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion also has lagged in ap­point­ing staff for White House ini­tia­tives that fo­cus on the needs of mi­nor­ity stu­dents, with no di­rec­tors for ef­forts tar­get­ing Latino, African Amer­i­can and Amer­i­can In­dian Alaska Na­tive stu­dents.

“The White House is dili­gently work­ing with the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to nom­i­nate highly qual­i­fied in­di­vid­u­als who can best im­ple­ment the pres­i­dent’s ed­u­ca­tion agenda,” said Lind­say Wal­ters, a deputy White House press sec­re­tary. “These in­di­vid­u­als go through a rig­or­ous ap­pli­ca­tion process, and we look for­ward to see­ing the Se­nate con­firm our nom­i­nees as soon as they are nom­i­nated.”

Con­ser­va­tives and Repub­li­cans wel­come ef­forts to down­size the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment and say they hope the re­duc­tion in work­force will be cou­pled with a re­duc­tion in re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“The De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion is too big and in­ter­feres too much, and the pres­i­dent and Sec­re­tary DeVos are right to re­duce staff where pos­si­ble to be bet­ter stew­ards of tax­payer dol­lars,” said Mar­garet Atkin­son, a staffer for Sen. La­mar Alexan­der (R-Tenn.), chair­man of the Se­nate Health, Ed­u­ca­tion, La­bor and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee.

TED S. WAR­REN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos has cut staff in an ef­fort to re­turn con­trol of ed­u­ca­tion back to states, lo­cal­i­ties and par­ents.

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