WASHINGTON -- The next few months should be a busy time for the U.S. Education Department. The administration is gearing up for several rounds of negotiations over possible new rules, including rewriting controversial regulations governing for-profit colleges. Congress is beginning the process of renewing the Higher Education Act. And in the days after President Obama won re-election, Education Secretary Arne Duncan promised an increased focus on higher education issues in the administration’s second term.
Six months after inauguration, though, one of the biggest questions facing the Education Department is whether it has the personpower to carry out its ambitious, if still hazy, agenda.
Turnover at the midpoint of a two-term presidential administration is common, and the federal hiring process -- especially for political appointees -- can involve lengthy vetting. But while the departures themselves aren’t out of the ordinary, observers here say they have created an almost unprecedented number of vacancies among career Education Department staff, political appointees and White House crafters of education policy.
In the past 18 months, the department has lost two career civil servants, David Bergeron (now at the Center for American Progress) and Daniel Madzelan (who retired in December 2011), who together had more than 60 years of policymaking experience. The Education Department has also seen the departures of the assistant secretary for postsecondary education (Eduardo Ochoa, who left in July 2012); the assistant secretary for planning, education and policy development (Carmel Martin, now at the Center for American Progress); the assistant secretary for civil rights (Russlyn Ali); the department’s chief spokesman (Justin Hamilton); a key policy adviser (Ben Miller); and a deputy under secretary (Georgia Yuan, who had been filling Ochoa’s position on an interim basis). The White House has also lost a top policy adviser on higher education: Zakiya Smith, now at the Lumina Foundation.
The result: the department has lost not only its institutional memory, but also most of the people who drove policymaking throughout the first term, with few people so far confirmed to replace them.
In the days after the election last fall, former officials already warned  that the department was suffering from the departure of key higher education staffers. During the first half of Obama’s first term, policymaking was guided by two successive deputy under secretaries who were considered highly effective. Bob Shireman oversaw the end of bank-based student lending and the expansion of income-based repayment, as well as beginning the process to step up regulations on for-profit colleges, before leaving in 2010. James Kvaal succeeded him, guiding the new program integrity regulations to completion, before joining President Obama's re-election campaign in the fall of 2011.
But with the second term on the horizon, those former officials warned, there was little indication of who might step up next to pick up where Shireman and Kvaal left off. The departures after the election have further muddied the waters.
That’s part of the problem, observers here say: without key policy staff in place, such as the deputy under secretary post, it’s harder to persuade others to join the administration. The process is complicated by the sheer number of vacancies across all agencies, not just the Education Department, and the federal government’s slow hiring and vetting process, particularly for top administration posts. The assistant secretary jobs also require Senate confirmation -- which has usually been a formality in the past but has encountered opposition from Senate Republicans during the Obama administration.
But in some cases, the department appears to have had trouble filling the jobs. In private conversations, some former Education Department employees say they wouldn’t return -- frustrated by the budget situation or believing they can accomplish more at the think tanks or advocacy groups where many now work.
Particularly for the assistant secretary position, names float into the Washington rumor mill, only to be disavowed as candidates withdraw. A nominee for that job is considered to still be months away.
On other fronts, though, there's evidence that the department will begin hiring soon. Candidates are said to have been identified for some posts, including for the deputy under secretary post that Shireman and Kvaal once held, but must first go through the lengthy federal hiring procedure. Last week Obama named his first political appointee of the second term who will deal with higher education issues: Catherine Lhamon to head the department’s Office for Civil Rights.
She's not sure, though, when the Senate will confirm her -- and is expecting a wait of anywhere from weeks to months.