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 for-profit 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 pound-foolish. 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 full-time 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 disability 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.