Education In the Trump Era

By Nancy Poon Lue, Education XXXII

Though I now live clear across the country from Washington D.C., I will never forget the years I had the honor of working at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration.  It was tough work with long hours and many unglamorous moments, but each day was an opportunity for making impactful changes for students and families and to work alongside some of the most dedicated public servants.

I felt the world moving backwards in the weeks following the Presidential election as I witnessed great anxiety all around me.  While national security, immigration, and tax policy have typically been hot button issues every time there is new leadership in the White House, this time family, friends, and the news media were unusually focused on the nomination of billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.   Everyone wanted to know what having a Secretary who had never attended, taught, or led public schools would mean for the more than 50 million students in public schools across America.

Initially, critics appeared most concerned about DeVos’s outspoken support of charter schools and vouchers and what that might mean for funding for their local traditional public schools.   However, after a shaky confirmation hearing during which DeVos struggled to demonstrate basic understanding of federal laws protecting students with disabilities, measurement of growth versus proficiency, and protection of civil rights, protests escalated enough to convince two Republican Senators to vote against her nomination.  In what unexpectedly became the most contested cabinet nomination thus far in the current Administration, DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education by the slimmest margin in history after Vice President Pence casted the tie breaking vote.

While I share in the palpable anxiety that is building during the first few weeks of DeVos’s tenure, especially in light of the most recent rollback of critical protection for transgendered students, I want to offer a few thoughts from having seen the inner workings of how education policy is shaped.

First of all, although Secretary DeVos is leading the Department of Education, as in all prior Administrations, much of the policy making and programmatic work are actually carried out by the agency’s senior leadership team including the Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, and many Assistant Secretaries who have not yet been nominated or confirmed by the Senate.   We should continue to urge our Senators to only confirm those who are qualified to lead those offices and can demonstrate a commitment to equitable treatment of all students.

In addition, while political appointees constitute the majority of the agency’s leadership, they make up less than one percent of the more than four thousand employees at the U.S. Department of Education.  During my years working on Secretary Duncan’s team, none of the important work and the critical day to day operations of our agency would have been possible had it not been for the deep commitment and contributions of our career civil servant colleagues, including many experienced senior leaders who have dedicated their entire careers to the agency.   They have served numerous Secretaries of Education from both political parties and are stewards of institutional knowledge so critical to making the agency function at its best.  I urge my former colleagues to continue to carry forth this hard work and to speak up and do what is right for all children.

Finally, while the U.S. Department of Education has broad reach and the benefit of the federal bully pulpit, it contributes an average of roughly only ten percent of all public education spending.  State and local education agencies continue to control the majority of education funding and decision-making and can choose to put in place measures to protect vulnerable populations.  We have already started to see numerous examples of these courageous actions, such as in New York where Governor Cuomo urged his State Department of Education to issue a directive to ensure equal protection for all students regardless of changes put forth by the federal government.   I urge everyone to actively engage with their state and locally elected officials, especially their school boards members, to voice concerns on education matters and to drive action where necessary.

In these challenging times, we are reminded more than ever that a world-class education for every child is the best pathway to ensuring a bright future for our nation.  All of our kids deserve nothing less.

Nancy Poon Lue is a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama Administration and is a Senior Fellow with the Class XXXII Education cohort.