Department of Education Hits Bottom

February, 2019

Washington -- It pains me to read the ever-increasing, head-shaking accounts of dysfunction at the U.S. Department of Education. I worked there eleven years, from 1994-2005, day and (often) night. From 2005 to the present I have tried to assist, as a private citizen, efforts to make the Department's programs work effectively and within the rule of law. I've invested a large chunk of my life in the cause.

Last month there were reports that morale has hit bottom at the Department. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted:

"The Department of Education placed 27th out of 27 midsize government agencies in the 2018 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" report. Morale in the department has fallen by more than 12 percentage points, one of the biggest drops of all federal agencies."


"DEAD LAST IN EMPLOYEE SURVEY: The Education Department came in last place in an annual ranking of the best places to work in the federal government. Employee engagement across the majority of federal departments dropped in 2018, the survey found. It showed a sharp drop in employee satisfaction regarding leadership, agency missions and pay."

This month came the news that Secretary Betsy DeVos has attempted to remove the acting Inspector General, the Department's watchdog, and replace her with another employee with a conflict of interest. The individual was later reinstated, after which a scathing IG report came out about the Department's failure properly to oversee student-loan servicers. The embarrassing report made national headlines from coast to coast. The sequence of events gives every indication that the Secretary was trying to suppress the report.

Another such critical report, on accreditation of for-profit schools, is apparently in the works. Those who follow the issue, like David Halperin writing for Republic Report, note conflicts of interest, missing funds, and a failure to follow the law to protect students. He is calling for the Secretary and the acting Under Secretary to resign.

Rank-and-file Department employees may not believe there is much they can do in these circumstances to keep the Department honest. If they protest and are punished for it, there is no functioning Merit Systems Protection Board to which they can turn for redress. That agency is likewise dysfunctional, to the point of soon closing its doors.

Employees can, however, turn to Congress. The Lloyd-LaFollette Act gives them protection to share their experiences and to be shielded from retaliation by the appropriations acts that incorporate the statute.

Unless Congress itself rolls over, that is. The coming weeks will be critical to see if the House in particular has the will to investigate and act to restore competence and the rule of law to the Department.