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Less than a third of the top posts at the Education Department have been filled in the year since Betsy DeVos was sworn in to head the agency, absences that could hinder her effectiveness, critics say.
While acting secretaries have been appointed to oversee several offices, the vacancies have led to frustration among some career staffers and could make it more difficult for Republicans to forge agreements on updating higher education law. DeVos was sworn in Feb. 7, 2017.
The number of Senate-confirmed nominees in the Education Department under President Donald Trump trails those of his predecessors, with only four out of 15 positions filled so far, including DeVos’s. One year after their first education secretaries were sworn in, presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush got 13 and 11 nominees confirmed, respectively, according to nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
The Trump White House had named only three nominees for the department within its first eight months. There were also issues finding the people willing to work under President Donald Trump, said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“A lot of Republicans who had expertise didn’t want to serve in this administration because of Trump,” Hess said. “Others that might have wanted to serve, the administration didn’t want for a variety of reasons.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said while the White House was to blame for the late start, the current holdup is the fault of Senate Democrats, who have forced each nominee to get a floor vote rather than expediting the process through unanimous consent agreements.
“The responsibility lies solely with the Democratic minority which is insisting on taking most of one week to confirm each nominee, knowing that there is not that much time for nominations on the Senate floor,” Alexander said at a January hearing of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee he chairs.
DeVos told Bloomberg Government in a Feb. 7 statement Trump’s nominees are “qualified, capable individuals waiting to serve our nation’s students.”
“We still do not have confirmations for way too many of our key positions. And this delay has been going on for months and months too long,” she said. “The Senate has failed to act to get them here.”
The vacancies could become an issue in reauthorizing the higher education law (Pub. L. 110-315) depending on how deep Republicans are divided on certain issues. During the reauthorization of the K-12 education law (Pub. L. 114-95), Hess said the Obama administration played a role in ironing out differences between Democrats.
“There’s certainly an important role for the administration to provide leadership, and part of what you would expect of an executive branch,” Hess said. “Not having those folks there is certainly an issue.”
The department has attempted to compensate for some of the gaps with acting secretaries. In January, the department announced that the nominee to head the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Frank Brogan, would be essentially heading the Office of Postsecondary Education while waiting for his confirmation.
Still, acting secretaries are only a temporary fix said Jared Bass, a former senior policy adviser at the Education Department.
“It’s a game of musical chairs because you need know who your leader is going to be,” said Bass, now with think tank New America. “There’s no certainly in what you’re doing. That becomes challenging for staff.”
The vacancies have also made it difficult for some career staffers.
Charles Doolittle, who left the Education Department in June 2017, said he went from being involved in helping draft and roll out the department’s budget proposal under the Obama administration to being largely shut out in the Trump administration.
“The biggest problem here is without all those positions in place, you’re not reaping the benefits of all of the institutional knowledge and expertise of career employees in the building,” he said.
Bass said political appointees are meant to be the link between the secretary and the career staffers, and he knew staffers frustrated from a lack of direction.
“When there is no one there to help and provide guidance, it’s hard for them to do their jobs,” Bass said. “If there’s no blueprint, it’s hard to know what you’re building.”
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