Trump Proposal Would Combine Education, Labor Departments

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

The Trump administration on Thursday released a sweeping proposal to reorganize, consolidate, and otherwise streamline several agencies across the federal government, including the combination of the Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Labor (DOL) into a new agency dubbed the Department of Education and the Workforce (DEW).

Since taking office, the administration has been clear with its intent to reduce the federal government's footprint. In the 132-page proposal, the administration writes that the merging of the two agencies would eliminate a duplication of effort between ED and DOL and refocus the government's goal on preparing individuals for the workforce. However, the consolidation of the two agencies would require congressional approval.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement that the reform proposal is "a big step" toward fulfilling President Donald Trump's promise of scaling back the federal government.

"Artificial barriers between education and workforce programs have existed for far too long. We must reform our 20th century federal agencies to meet the challenges of the 21st century," DeVos said. "This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the administration to make this proposal a reality."

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement shortly after the release of the proposal that the federal government "is long overdue for a serious overhaul" and that the proposed agency "is recognition of the clear relationship between education policy at every level and the needs of the growing American workforce."

"At the Committee on Education and the Workforce, we make these connections in everything we do," Foxx continued. "We welcome the administration's focus on education and workforce issues together, and as we continue our oversight over the Department of Education and the Department of Labor, we look forward to working with the administration on the proposal and how the new department could function to best serve American students, workers, job creators, and families."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate education committee and a former secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, had a slightly more tepid reaction, saying "it's always wise to look for greater efficiency in how our government operates" and that he would "study the proposal carefully." Alexander in the past has also called for ED to be eliminated, with its various programs distributed to other agencies.

Though according to the proposal the two agencies currently operate with similar missions of "preparing Americans for success in a globally competitive world through family-sustaining careers," the separation has resulted in complex funding streams and a "confusing set of signals sent to American students and workers" on how to obtain an education and develop needed workplace skills.

"This fragmentation perpetuates unnecessary bureaucracy and complicates state and local efforts to weave together disparate funding streams to meet the comprehensive needs of their citizens," the proposal continued.

Education Week first broke the news of the upcoming merger proposal on Wednesday evening. Within DEW, existing programs would be separated into four sub-agencies focusing on different policy areas, including K-12 education, higher education and workforce development, enforcement, and research, evaluation, and administration.

"This would help create alignment throughout the education-to-career pipeline, while also creating coherence within the workforce development and higher education worlds," the proposal said.

A flowchart accompanying the written description of the hypothetical new agency shows that higher education programs, including Federal Student Aid (FSA), would be moved into a sub-agency called the American Workforce and Higher Education Administration (AWHEA). Along with postsecondary programs, the sub-agency would house employment and training programs from DOL — such as Job Corps and unemployment insurance — along with its Office of Disability Employment Policy and Veterans' Employment and Training Service.

However, a line for "student aid administration" also appears in the sub-agency focused on research and evaluation, so it remains unclear exactly if or how FSA's responsibilities would change under the proposal.

K-12 education programs would remain separate, while the Institute of Education Sciences would be rolled into a research and evaluation-focused sub-agency, and ED's Office for Civil Rights would move to the sub-agency focused on enforcement, along with DOL's worker protection programs and its International Labor Affairs Bureau.

The administration said in the proposal that the higher education component of the AWHEA would "complement [FSA's] customer-service focus and move to the Next Generation (Next Gen Financial Services Environment."

Further within the proposal, the administration seeks to pursue the already-announced Next Gen Financial Services Environment "as a new approach to [FSA] processing and servicing with a modernized, innovative, and integrated architecture."

The Next Gen environment, the proposal claims, would save taxpayers millions of dollars and would create "an improved, world-class customer experience for FSA's more than 42 million customers, while creating a more agile and streamlined operating model." FSA would initially focus on updating the FAFSA and modernizing the servicing and repayment of federal student loans, "with additional work to come to improve the experience throughout the student aid life cycle."

Since ED was created in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter, there have been many attempts to consolidate or altogether eliminate the federal agency. Even William Bennett, one of the first education secretaries under President Ronald Reagan, has said he's unsure if ED is necessary.

"People were always asking me if I thought we even needed the department," he told The New York Times in 1995. "I often told them, 'No.'"

As recently as 2017, Republican lawmakers have attempted to eliminate the department, with one recent bill from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) consisting of just one sentence: "The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018."

Other proposals have suggested shifting some of ED's responsibilities, such as the oversight of student loans, to other agencies. Last May, after former FSA COO James Runcie abruptly quit, rumors swirled that ED was considering transferring its more than $1 trillion loan portfolio to the Treasury Department.

Democrats, however, remain critical of eliminating or consolidating ED.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member of the House education committee, said DOL "is no more equipped to oversee elementary education policy than [ED] is prepared to enforce standards for coal mine safety. The logic behind this proposal is painfully thin."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate education committee, also denounced the proposal.

"Rather than spending their energy proposing unrealistic, unhelpful, and futile reorganizations of the federal government just to have a new talking point, President Trump and Secretaries DeVos, Azar, and Acosta should start undoing some of the chaos and harm they have caused to children, students, workers, patients, and families across the country," Murray said in an emailed statement. "Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump's proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers—and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves."


Publication Date: 6/22/2018

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