Vacant Positions at Department of Education

The slow confirmation of presidential appointees could delay actions by the Biden administration on higher education issues.

April 28, 2021
 
Connecticut Department of Education
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

As President Biden approaches his 100th day in office, only one of his Department of Education nominees has been confirmed by the Senate, leaving over a dozen positions vacant and likely delaying his higher education agenda.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is the lone nominee to complete the confirmation process of the department’s 16 presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions. Three positions, including under secretary nominee James Kvaal, are awaiting further action by the Senate. Biden has yet to choose nominees for 11 other positions.

“These are subcabinet people who actually run the agencies on a day-to-day basis,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. “Getting things done in the executive branch requires that you have the positions filled out.”

The lack of confirmed nominees in executive branch positions isn’t unique to the Department of Education, with only 36 positions across all departments permanently filled. Nor is it surprising -- the slow-moving process is a part of a trend, as confirmation times doubled between the Reagan and Trump administrations, said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which has been tracking the progress of political appointees with The Washington Post.

“It takes a phenomenally long time for presidents to get their senior team in place, and it's bad,” Stier said. “It causes real problems.”

This administration’s confirmation processes haven’t been helped by the delay of the 2020 presidential election results, a stunted transition process and the lack of certainty until early January over whether Democrats or Republicans would control the Senate, which Hartle said are all contributing factors.

Nominating people for the positions is also an “onerous” process, said Stier, and the administration may not be eager to select more nominees for unfilled positions while dozens of others are still held up in Congress.

“There are a lot of people in the queue, and it's a traffic jam,” he said. “They could stack up more cars on the other end, but they've still got to get through the Senate.”

For higher education policy, that means some of what the Biden administration wants to accomplish is going to take longer than it would otherwise, said Hartle.

The administration has yet to provide updates on recently passed legislation, such as allocations and guidance for the American Rescue Plan and whether funding given to colleges under the pandemic relief passed in December can be spent on international students and Dreamers. Other executive actions the administration will want to take -- like rewriting Title IX and borrower-defense regulations and simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- require having senior department positions filled, according to Hartle.

The Department of Education didn't return a request for comment.

Kvaal and Cindy Marten, the nominee for deputy secretary, are awaiting floor votes by the full Senate to confirm. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee still has to hold a hearing for Gwen Graham, who is the nominee for assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs.

The vacant positions are currently filled with acting leadership, which is more like having a substitute teacher, explained Stier.

“You might have an amazing educator, but if they're the substitute teacher, they don't view their job in the same way as the full-time teacher does,” Stier said. “It's the same way here. [Acting leadership] will view their jobs as keeping the trains running on time and not likely to take on the tough problems and long-term issues.”

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