A University of Texas College of Education Ph.D. student reflects on summer internship at the U.S. Department of Education
Educational Policy and Planning doctoral student Anthony Vincent LeClair spent part of this past summer in Washington, D.C. as an Archer Scholar. He describes the career-making experience as invaluable. Here are his reflections of his work.
I spent this past summer in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) at the U.S. Department of Education. There, I became part of the research staff providing technical expertise and policy recommendations to presidential appointees, including the Secretary of Education. This office relies heavily on the rigorous academic research being conducted in our institutions of higher education and our not-for-profit policy and research centers. Research is employed daily to craft policy recommendations, respond to criticism, and to address the issues under the department’s authority.
The office moves quickly and everyone puts in 10 hours daily. A “high-boil ask” may need to be turned around in less than an hour. This includes vetting the Secretary or an Undersecretary’s speeches for factual accuracy, running quick data analyses, and providing technical assistance on the scope and practicality of new research findings. A “low-boil ask,” like drafting research background and justification for a large-scale department study to be vetted by The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), will need to be on your director’s desk in 10 days. This process, often contracted out, includes discussing pertinent issues with a purposive sample of schools and organizations, crafting survey instruments, calculating the full cost to all parties, and creating a compelling written case for its necessity. All projects occur simultaneously, and staff is held to the highest of standards. It can be chaotic, but there is nothing like knowing you are essential to the department’s short-term and long-term work.
Beyond the everyday quick-turnaround work, I carried two long-term projects this summer. The first required a fair amount of discretion, as it applied the department’s long-term understanding and future plans for school-level racial and economic integration. I was incredibly privileged to take lead on the presentation of research regarding integration and segregation in the United States. I provided a comprehensive look at the state of the field. The most consistent finding in relation to school racial composition shows black students are disproportionately negatively impacted by remaining in segregated schools. Widely circulated, this review will be an important document for the department moving forward.
The second project, which will have a greater national impact on the research community, pertained to statutory and regulatory guidance for states reporting their “economically disadvantaged” student statistics. While most states, including Texas, use the highly convenient, though poor, proxy of Free and Reduced Price Lunch to determine disadvantage, the new Community Eligibility Provision has rendered this proxy effectively unreliable. States are currently grappling with this problem and are either looking for guidance from the department, or moving forward with direct certification of students whose families are enrolled in joint federal-state entitlement programs (SNAP, TANF, FDPIR). This second option, if used exclusively, will render all students who are legally ineligible for federal and state assistance (including children of undocumented immigrants and any child living in a residence where a convicted state drug felon resides) to be designated “economically advantaged.”
This change will have significant consequences for our students, as well as our states. Our working team’s recommendation addressed this very significant issue. The Department of Education is currently working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to draft regulations addressing which students shall not be left out of this calculation, while our staff is pushing statutory tweaks as the House and Senate confer on ECAA.
This internship was the most substantive and rewarding experience of my career. In the months that followed, I was heavily recruited by a handful of other offices and another agency. Each person I spoke with strongly encouraged me to apply for the Presidential Management Fellow program, which is the quickest path to being hired by a federal agency. I met, had intense and substantive conversations, and became friends with major allies of public education in D.C.
This experience allowed me to start my career in the most meaningful manner possible.