It would be rather ironic if, after her contentious confirmation process, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos found herself out of a job. Yet that might be the case if House Representative Thomas Massie (R-Ken.) has his way. On the same day that DeVos won her bitterly contested post, Massie introduced a bill to “terminate” the federal Department of Education (ED) on Dec. 31, 2018.
It will take much more than one sentence in a bill to eliminate the department. (Legal experts say this move is more “posturing” than substance.) Yet many politicians’ desire to slash government offices and spending should raise concern over the fate of initiatives that were well-supported by the previous administration.
Within ED, one of the busiest teams has been the Office of Educational Technology (OET). Under the Obama administration, this office spearheaded efforts around increasing broadband access for schools and libraries, expanding the use of open educational resources through the #GoOpen campaign, and improving teacher preparation programs. It’s issued several national education technology plans and organized gatherings of state and district leaders to share what’s working—and what’s not.
Could all this work go away? Eliminating this office entirely would require Congress to pass a legislative amendment since it was established through a bill.
Many hope that’s not the case. In an open letter, Joshua Kim, a digital learning director at Dartmouth College, encouraged DeVos to continue the department’s “role in helping to create the conditions for knowledge sharing, collaborations, and partnerships across the postsecondary edtech ecosystem.” Harold Levy, an investor and former Chancellor of New York City Schools, believes a Trump administration “could increase the use of revolutionary educational technology (edtech) to dramatically improve instruction for millions of children in America’s schools.” DeVos herself has said that technology can play a role in classrooms.
The future of OET’s funding and initiatives will depend on the new education secretary and a fresh batch of politically appointed directors. Its interim director is Joseph Conaty, a senior career education employee who has been with the department for almost three decades. Until a new director is appointed, Conaty will manage OET’s budget that covers the office’s current work until September 2017.
Educators who are actively involved in OET’s initiatives are watching closely. “There’s a concern I have about the support we get right now from the Department of Education, we have used the edtech plans they created as a model for our district,” says Erin English, who leads #GoOpen in California as the Director of Blended and Online Learning in Vista Unified School District. “I hope that the work being done is seen as positive and the funding continues,” she adds. OET staff members “are my go-to people when I want to make sure I am implementing edtech plans accurately. If they don’t have the answers, they connect me with someone who can help.”
With a new U.S. President that relies heavily on branding and name recognition, it should come as no surprise that the biggest problems initiatives formed under the previous administration could face come from the branding.
Even if the new administration’s edtech priorities align, there’s still the issue of politics—in particular, who gets credit. “If they see our efforts as Obama’s or [former Education Secretary Arne] Duncan’s ‘stuff’ they could throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says a former department official, who requested to remain unnamed.
Getting states to adopt programs branded in a way that associates it with a party or president could be difficult. More than 50 organizations and dozens of state education departments are already involved in OET initiatives, and disassociating these projects from political affiliations may be key to their survival.
So far there’s one sign that these projects may continue. Kristina Peters, an OET fellow currently directing #GoOpen, expressed enthusiasm on Twitter last Wednesday: “Thank you Secretary @BetsyDeVos for stopping by @theOfficeofEdtech this afternoon. We look forward to working with you!”
According to the ED Press Office, there is no official word on who the new OET director will be, in spite of a Politico report that 18 new employees recently joined the department. In the interim, partners leading OET initiatives on the ground can only hope for positive news. “I hope the person coming in really gets to know our schools and the issues we face with our students,” English tells EdSurge. “I don’t want solutions from them right now. I want them to sit down with me and say, ‘tell me about your program and tell me how I can help.’ Because we are doing the work and it's working.”