Good News, or Bad News from the USDE?

Multiple reports indicate that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is planning a significant reorganization of the U.S. Department of Education in which the Office of Non-Public Education (ONPE) will receive more prominent status.  Word has it that along with a number of accompanying structural changes, the ONPE will be moved out of the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), where it is currently housed, and will report directly to the Secretary.  (The OII will, reportedly, be merged into the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.)  For better or worse, such a change will almost certainly elevate the profile of the ONPE.

The ONPE serves as the USDE’s primary liaison to the nation’s private school community.  As is noted on the USDE website, “ONPE fosters maximum participation of nonpublic school students and teachers in federal education programs and initiatives.”  Its principal spheres of activity reflect this mission by:

  • Representing the U.S. Department of Education to the nonpublic school community;
  • Offering advice and guidance within the Department on all matters affecting nonpublic education;
  • Communicating with national, state and local education agencies and associations on nonpublic education topics;
  • Communicating the interests and concerns of the nonpublic school community to the Department;
  • Providing parents with information regarding education options for their children; and
  • Providing technical assistance, workshops and publications.

These are not partisan activities. The ONPE performed the same functions throughout the course of Barack Obama’s presidency.  Indeed, for as long as it has existed, and regardless of which political party is resident in the White House, the ONPE’s principal purpose has consisted of explaining and enforcing those elements of federal education law relating to private schools.

As if to underscore the point that the ONPE’s primary orientation is to the law, rather than favored partisan policies, ONPE’s Director is not a political appointee, but a career USDE staff member.  Indeed, ONPE Director Dr. Maureen Dowling assumed her current position under the Obama Administration, following previous service as an ONPE Education Program Specialist. A consummate public servant, Dr. Dowling earned her promotion through professional merit, not political pedigree.  She, and her ultra-capable and always courteous staff are certainly private school friendly, but their bias always rests with the law.

So why might an enhanced organizational profile for the ONPE provide cause for concern?  For one, the ONPE’s new status may signal an impending shift away from the Office’s traditional role as a nonpartisan conduit of information in favor of a more political orientation attuned to advocacy in support of school choice policies favored by the administration.  Any such politicization would serve to both undermine the ONPE’s reputation for even-handedness and make its continued existence less certain. Administrations come and go.  Education policy battles revolving around school choice are certain to continue.  But private schools will continue to require a structural presence within the USDE that provides timely, relevant, and authoritative information concerning federal education laws, and is trusted by the private and public sectors, alike.  Politicizing the ONPE would be a mistake.

A greater cause for concern is that the ONPE will be politicized not by Betsy DeVos, but by the United States Congress.  With Democrats now set to assume control of the House of Representatives, it is a foregone conclusion that Secretary DeVos will receive more frequent “invitations” to appear before Congressional committees…and her “hosts” will by no means be friendly.  The ordeal Ms. DeVos stands to face has prompted one prominent education policy pundit, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael J. Petrilli, to pen an article in which he very politely encourages the Secretary of Education to consider a return to private life, rather than submit to what Mr. Petrilli describes as a series of impending “show trials.”

While it is likely that most forthcoming investigative hearings will focus on civil rights issues, for-profit institutions of higher education, and regulation of the student loan industry, enforcement of the Every Student Succeeds Act and School Choice issues can certainly be thrown into the mix.  An ONPE with a heightened organizational profile makes Congressional scrutiny more, rather than less likely.  And, in this era of hyper-partisanship, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a critical spotlight shone upon the provision of equitable services for private school students and educators.  It may not happen, but color me concerned.

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