Elizabeth Warren is one of several Democratic presidential candidates who is highlighting education as a key policy issue in their campaigns. A few weeks after announcing an ambitious proposal to forgive nearly half of all outstanding student debt and strip for-profit colleges’ access to federal financial aid (among other issues), she returned to the topic in advance of a town hall event with the American Federation of Teachers in Philadelphia. In a tweet, Warren promised that her Secretary of Education would be a public school teacher.
This would be far from unprecedented: both Rod Paige (under George W. Bush) and John King (under Barack Obama) were public school teachers. But if Warren or any other Democrat wants to influence American education to the greatest extent possible, the candidate should appoint someone from higher education instead of K-12 education. (The same also applies to Donald Trump, who apparently will need a new Secretary of Education if he wins a second term.) Below, I discuss a few reasons why ED’s next leader should come from higher ed.
First, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in 2015, shifted a significant amount of power from ED to the states. This means that the federal government’s power in K-12 education has shifted more toward the appropriations process, which is controlled by Congress. Putting a teacher in charge of ED may result in better K-12 policy, but the change is likely to be small due to the reduced amount of discretion.
Meanwhile, on the higher education side of the ranch, I still see a comprehensive Higher Education Act reauthorization as being unlikely before 2021—even though Lamar Alexander is promising a bill soon. I could see a narrowly-targeted bill on FAFSA simplification getting through Congress, but HEA reauthorization is going to be tough in three main areas: for-profit college accountability, income-driven student loan repayment plans, and social issues (Title IX, campus safety, and free speech). Warren’s proposal last month probably makes HEA reauthorization tougher as it will pull many Senate Democrats farther to the left.
This means that ED will continue to have a great amount of power to make policy through the negotiated rulemaking process under the current HEA. Both the Obama and Trump administrations used neg reg to shape policies without going through Congress, and a Democratic president is likely to rely on ED to undo Trump-era policies. Meanwhile, a second-term Trump administration will still have a number of loose ends to tie up given the difficulty of getting the sheer number of regulatory changes through the process by November 1 of this year (the deadline to have rules take effect before the 2020 election).
I fully realize that promising a public school teacher as Secretary of Education is a great political statement to win over teachers’ unions—a key ally for Democrats. But in terms of changing educational policies, candidates should be looking toward higher education veterans who can help them reshape a landscape in which there is more room to maneuver.