Sunday, January 22, 2017

Authorities of the U.S. Secretary of Education

Nominee for Secretary of Education to President Trump: Mrs. Betsy DeVos, a billionaire from Grand Rapids who is a 30 year veteran of philanthropy and advocacy in education. An extremely controversial nominee. Since Mrs. DeVos is a Michigan native and hails from Grand Rapids, the controversy seemed to hit much closer to home than I have ever experienced. Because of that “connection” I know I would have sat up and taken notice; I would have been more aware of and engaged in some of the conversations. Since it will impact the field of education, I would have taken notice anyway and would have broadened my conversations. Add to that the fact that the nominee is not an educator and it was like a trifecta for me: I had to know more!
"What cannot be understood cannot be managed intelligently".
I return to this quote from John Dewey. I enjoy reading educational commentary. I could not really understand how Mrs. DeVos was even on the short list. That did not make sense. It would have been quite easy to file it in the file of “She’s a billionaire who paid for the nomination”; or “The dude has no idea what he’s doing and is throwing all kinds of crazy names on his Cabinet list”; or even “He’s thinking outside the box and being innovative”. 

Because we are in a time of such significant change, I am working mindfully to be diligent in managing my words and actions intelligently. I am conscious of my position as an educational leader just as I am aware of being a strong woman, a mother and a role model to many young girls and boys/men in our community. In this vein, I am committed to putting my thoughts and understandings out in print. As I started doing so, I realized that I needed to start with the fundamental question of what the heck does the Secretary of Education really do? Was I even correct in my understanding of what the job actually entails? There was much chatter in my social media feeds generalizing how horrible a candidate she is; there was also much about what an innovative and great idea it was to nominate her. But why? I posted this question/challenge on Facebook:

Without a doubt, a current hot topic is the nominee for Secretary of Education. I am an inquiring mind. In the spirit of inquiry, not debate or rhetoric, I ask you to share what you believe the job duty/duties of the Secretary of Education are. Not what you think they should be or what you believe other people think they should be; not who you think would do well or not well; not critique what someone else thinks the job is; post what you believe the person in that position actually has the responsibility to do based on the current job description.

Additionally, I challenge you to not actually Google or look up the job description before posting!

What We Think the Secretary of Education Does

My Facebook account is intentionally a closed one. I choose carefully who I am connected to in the sense of I only connect with people I know or have known and/or are relations since I also share pictures and random pieces of our family life, etc... Still, I am connected to 699 people so I figured that was a fair number even though I know a little about Facebook algorithms and can pretty much guarantee myself that not all of those connections would have even seen my question. I had seven folks take me up on my question/challenge. So, in my teeny sample of my teeny world, the general understanding of the job of Secretary of State included:
  • no idea
  • no idea
  • set standards for what students should learn before they graduate and ensure schools are achieving those standards
  • oversee money distribution including federal monies to the states for elementary and high schools, pell grant distribution including setting standards universities must meet to receive federal money
  • one personal pondering of whether or not a secretary of education is necessary - the federal office of education seems to mostly distribute block grants

I was not quite in the boat of “no idea” but I do not think I would have remembered or thought of all of these other points if I were to have typed a one or two sentence answer myself. Even with all of my experience, knowledge and background, I realized I did not understand enough to write intelligently on the topic.  I needed to do some research.  

A Job Description for the Secretary of Education


I no longer have a government textbook at my house and I didn’t really want to go to the library. For such a pivotal responsibility in our nation’s government, I was confident that I would be able to access adequate information using only internet resources so away to Google I went…
The tradition of the Cabinet dates back to the beginnings of the Presidency itself. Established in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, the Cabinet's role is to advise the President on any subject he may require relating to the duties of each member's respective office.

The Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive departments — the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General. (from WhiteHouse.gov)


Not enough information. Next “stop”, Department of Education. The overview of Functions is:

The Secretary is responsible for the overall direction, supervision, and coordination of all activities of the Department and is the principal adviser to the President on Federal policies, programs and activities related to education in the United States. The Secretary serves as Chief Operating Officer for the Department under the President's Memorandum of July 11, 2001.

The Deputy Secretary focuses on the development and implementation of policies, programs, and activities relating to elementary and secondary education matters. This mission addresses a wide spectrum of interests ranging from safe and drug free schools, special education and rehabilitative services to education of linguistically and culturally diverse students, and promotion of educational interventions, and reforms.

The Under Secretary focuses on higher and adult education policy, postsecondary policy, college aid, and the President's financial aid reforms for the Pell Grant program.

In each of those three positions were sections detailing the Functions and Responsibilities of each which were fairly lengthy but, for the most part, covered well in the overviews. 

In Other Words


The Deputy Secretary does the work of developing and implementing all policies, programs and activities for K-12 schooling - under the direction of the Secretary of course. Interesting to me was the fact that the Deputy Secretary is responsible for all K-12 education including non-general education programs and services, oversees intergovernmental relations and oversees The Office of Innovation and Improvement, the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, and the Risk Management Service. All seem to be a function of the Education Department, though some pieces were quite new to me. 

Then there is also an Under Secretary who does the work of policies and activities related to higher education, adult education the reforms for Pell Grants and other forms of college aid - under the direction of the Secretary. Further descriptions included that the Under Secretary is responsible for the administration of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Programs, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. With the use of "White House Initiative" in most of these titles, I would infer that all of those programs would be dependent on the White House continuing them and/or replacing them with other initiatives. A general question this raises for me would be what portion of the budget these programs might entail. A specific question this raises for me is if these are White House initiatives and not ongoing programs or governed by Congress than what would this portion of the Department, and budget, look like under President Trump and his Secretary of Education? 

Based on the description of duties, the Secretary of Education (SOE) is the chief administrator. She would be the COO, coordinate everyone else in the Department of Education (DOE) and directly advise the President in all things education. Like all chief administrators, the SOE would be directing all things related to education but not necessarily doing the compilation work herself. An understanding of all aspects of education would be vital to being able to direct, supervise and coordinate all those working in the DOE. So, the next research question became, just what is the responsibility of the Department of Education? What does the Secretary of Education actually oversee? 

Department of Education

Again, straight to the source (Dept of Ed):

Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States. It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The structure of education finance in America reflects this predominant State and local role. Of an estimated $1.15 trillion being spent nationwide on education at all levels for school year 2012-2013, a substantial majority will come from State, local, and private sources. This is especially true at the elementary and secondary level, where about 92 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources.

That means the Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is about 8 percent, which includes funds not only from the Department of Education (ED) but also from other Federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services' Head Start program and the Department of Agriculture's School Lunch program.

Although ED's share of total education funding in the U.S. is relatively small, ED works hard to get a big bang for its taxpayer-provided bucks by targeting its funds where they can do the most good. This targeting reflects the historical development of the Federal role in education as a kind of "emergency response system," a means of filling gaps in State and local support for education when critical national needs arise.

[Yes, the dollar amount included is 2012-2013, but generally in Education documentation facts reflect a few years back. It's often not feasible to fully compile, analyze and edit a nation's worth of information much more quickly.] 

Additional information included:
The Department carries out its mission in two major ways. First, the Secretary and the Department play a leadership role in the ongoing national dialogue over how to improve the results of our education system for all students. This involves such activities as raising national and community awareness of the education challenges confronting the Nation, disseminating the latest discoveries on what works in teaching and learning, and helping communities work out solutions to difficult educational issues.

Second, the Department pursues its twin goals of access and excellence through the administration of programs that cover every area of education and range from preschool education through postdoctoral research. For more information on the Department's programs see the President's FY 2017 Budget Request for Education.

New to me was thinking about the role of Deputy Secretary or Under Secretary. As I dove back into the DOE site to see more about how those positions were selected, I discovered a section V of what I had been reading. It was not included on the initial page of information and when I had finished reading the page there was not a little prompt link for "next page" or "read more". Since I had had my initial question answered, I had not ensured I read all available sections. I will most certainly not be so slack the next time I research! The section I almost missed was Reservations of Authority:

In general, unless provided by law, the Secretary has reserved the following authorities:
  • Authority to promulgate regulations.
  • The authority to appoint members of advisory councils and fix compensation.
  • The authority to submit reports to the Congress or the President.
In some instances, the Secretary has departed from these general principles. The Executive Office, Office of Management, can provide information regarding specific reservations.

An "Aha" moment! The Secretary is most certainly a bit more than a COO. 

  1. The Secretary of Education would have the authority to promulgate, or proclaim a doctrine or put a law into action. NOTE: that does not mean create the law or doctrine; that is done by Congress. 
  2. The Secretary of Education has the authority to appoint members of advisory councils and fix their compensations. So, she would have the authority to not only appoint people to advisory councils, but determine what the government will pay them. Mrs. DeVos is a business person rather than an educator. She is not part of the Education System and has a definite bias to not only non-traditional schooling but those which are faith-based. I recognize why this would be, and should be, a significant concern to critics of her appointment. 
  3. Finally, the Secretary of Education has the authority to submit reports to Congress or the President. She should not only have the authority to do so but should be expected to do so regularly.  

In Summary

The Secretary of Education is a COO of the Department of Education, overseeing the personnel who develop, implement and promote interventions and reforms. She would be the head administrator and oversee the budgets and personnel. She would work to raise awareness of the education challenges confronting our Nation, disseminating latest discoveries on what works and work with helping communities work out solutions to "difficult educational issues". She would also have some governance of direct funds/compensation for advisory council appointees and, potentially, for White House Initiatives under the Under Secretary. 

It makes total sense that the SOE would have to have a certain level of foundational knowledge of both theory and practice in order to effectively oversee such personnel and drive such conversations. I can also see where the level of such knowledge could be open to quite a bit of interpretation. 

When I read the Reservations of Authority, I felt that "aha"; I also felt slightly stupid. How could I have missed that? No, I do not believe it was some conspiracy or intentional design of the site to keep people from seeing the important bits. I know I did not see it because I did not go one extra step. Being informed - fully informed - requires diligence. It is also easy to feel that we have found all there is to find or we have all the information we need to make a decision or form a full opinion. I would caution that it is just important to realize that just because we have an informed opinion does not mean that there is not more information available. 

We must continue to learn in order to remain educated. We must be educated to participate fully in our democracy and in our society. Just one more reason, this Cabinet posting is so important to people throughout our great country. 

Next Up: The Senate Hearing

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