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Too Much Room at the Inn

President Obama talked quite a bit about education last night in his address to Congress and the American people, setting out a number of priorities that will soon be backed up with resources from the economic recovery package. But there’s something about the staging of this that makes me very nervous: most of the key positions in the U.S. Department of Education that involve policy development and implementation, and the administration of the Department’s resources, are not yet filled by individuals chosen by the new administration.

It’s now been more than a month since President Obama’s inauguration, and more than two months since he nominated Arne Duncan to be Secretary of Education. Yet here is a list of just some of the key positions that remain open or staffed by acting individuals on the ED organizational chart:

Chief of Staff

Deputy Secretary


Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education

Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education

Director, Institute of Education Sciences

It’s inaccurate, and unfair, to describe most of these positions as “vacant” or “unfilled”. Many of them are in fact filled by career civil servants serving in an acting capacity, who are experienced, know how the system works, and have learned to survive the short-term political winds that are stirred up in every administration. I have a lot of respect for and faith in career ED staff. But there are limits to what someone can do with an “Acting” title, because the role of “Acting,” ironically, places limits on an incumbent’s ability to act. People in acting capacities frequently are not authorized to make bold decisions, and lack the authority that comes from an expectation that they’ll be around to hold others accountable, and to be held accountable themselves.

What’s holding things up?

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