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What Does a Shrinking Education Department Mean for States and Vulnerable Students?

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came into office saying she wanted to slim down the federal role on K-12. By at least one metric, she's delivered: The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education has lost about 14 percent of its staff since the start of the Trump administration.

So how much does that actually matter to the department's "customers" (states) and what does it mean for the federal role in protecting vulnerable groups of students?

It depends on who you ask. Some state officials say they often have to wait weeks or months for answers to simple questions, and aren't getting enough guidance on implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

In the past, "You'd reach out to a program officer and you'd get timely responses to inquiries," said one state official who, like five others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity to speak candidly about interactions with the department. "Now what we're seeing in some instances is that responses are going unanswered for months at a time."

This state official noted that while the Obama administration's Race to the Top policy had its flaws, at least states had an idea of where the federal government wanted to go on education. Now there's a big leadership vacuum.

Civil rights advocates also have major concerns.

Ary Amerikaner, who served as a deputy assistant secretary in the OESE during the Obama administration, worries that the thinning ranks may jeopardize the department's ability to support states in educating historically disadvantaged students and to provide needed oversight.

"As a civil rights advocate, I know that some state leaders are trying to do the right thing, and I'm worried for them that they are not getting answers from the department that are allowing them to move forward," said Amerikaner, who is now the vice president of P-12 policy, practice, and research at the Education Trust, a civil rights organization. "History tells us some state leaders are not trustworthy when it comes to vulnerable kids, and we need the federal government to be playing their role as watchdog. Without sufficient bodies, the OESE can't do either of those things well."

But other state leaders say the reduced federal footprint has given them time and breathing space to implement their own visions for education.

"I'm enjoying the flexibility to get our legs underneath us," said Matthew Blomstedt, the commissioner of education in Nebraska, which has recently made changes to testing and other areas. He thinks the department hasn't veered from its mission of working to protect vulnerable children. Officials pushed Nebraska hard on its ESSA plan, one of the last to be approved, he said: "I give them credit for making us think a bit harder about the equity charge under [the law]."

Blomstedt is especially happy that DeVos hired a former Florida state chief, Frank Brogan, to oversee the OESE.

Blomstedt was also hearted that DeVos brought in a former Florida state chief, Frank Brogan, to serve as assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. "I find him refreshing because he has a sense of what our jobs are," Blomstedt said.  

The American and Education Department flags flank the seal of the Department of Education outside the office of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  --Jacquelyn Martin/AP-File

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