House Dems Scrutinize Ed. Secretary 01/22 05:55
Wielding control of the House and a new set of investigative powers,
Democrats are preparing to bring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos under the
sharpest scrutiny she has seen since taking office.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Wielding control of the House and a new set of
investigative powers, Democrats are preparing to bring Education Secretary
Betsy DeVos under the sharpest scrutiny she has seen since taking office.
DeVos has emerged as a common target for Democrats as they take charge of
the House and its committees, which carry the authority to issue subpoenas and
call hearings. At least four panels are expected to challenge DeVos on her most
polarizing policies, among them her overhaul of campus sexual assault rules and
her rollback of for-profit college regulations.
"We are going to hold Secretary DeVos accountable for, in so many ways,
failing to uphold federal protections for our students," said Rep. Rosa
DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat leading an appropriations subcommittee that
oversees the education budget. "It has to do with hurting student borrowers,
protecting predatory for-profit schools and, above all, moving toward
privatizing public education."
House Democrats are increasing scrutiny of several top federal officials,
but few have drawn as much attention as DeVos. Along with the appropriations
committee, DeVos is likely to see pushback from panels that oversee education,
veterans' affairs and government oversight.
Without control of the Senate, Democrats will have a tough time forcing
DeVos' hand through legislation, but they can press her through subpoenas,
hearings and the budgeting process. In contrast, DeVos was called before the
House's education committee just once over the last two years of Republican
Much of the new scrutiny will come from Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the
top Democrat on the education committee, who said he will call DeVos to testify
"as often as necessary."
"We have not been getting answers to most of our questions," Scott said in
an interview, recalling when Democrats were in a minority. "It's kind of hard
to do oversight when they're not answering our questions."
Scott is particularly interested in exploring whether the Education
Department is allowing states to skirt federal rules requiring them to address
achievement gaps between students of different races.
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill countered that DeVos has been
responsive to requests for information from Congress and will continue to be.
"She's ready to work with any member of Congress who wants to rethink
education and do better for America's students," Hill said.
President Donald Trump has dismissed Democrats' scrutiny of his
administration as nothing more than "harassment." But Scott said he plans to
work with Republicans on his own initiatives, including a push for federal
money to update the nation's aging school buildings.
"The majority has certain powers, but hopefully we would have an ongoing
dialogue," Scott said. "Some of the hearings become spectacles that really
don't add to solving problems."
Part of the problem for Democrats will be picking their battles. They have
opposed DeVos on nearly all of her major initiatives, including her proposed
rules on the handling of campus sexual assaults, her support for arming school
staff members and her revocation of federal guidance on school discipline.
But DeVos' greatest opposition could stem from her rollback of rules
targeting for-profit colleges. As Trump pursues a broader effort to scale back
regulation, she has sought to undo policies that the previous administration
crafted to rein in for-profit colleges accused of deceiving students. Among
them are the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute chains.
A federal judge blocked DeVos from scrapping a policy that makes it easier
for defrauded students to get loans erased. But her department has not enforced
a separate rule meant to weed out shoddy for-profit colleges. Most recently,
DeVos drew criticism in November when she reinstated an industry accrediting
group that federal officials shut down in 2016 over lax oversight.
Scott has already vowed to dig into DeVos' decision on the accreditor, and
he's joined by several other lawmakers concerned about for-profit college
Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat chairing the veterans' affairs
committee, plans to hold hearings on the impact of DeVos' policies on military
veterans. Takano said looser oversight has allowed predatory schools to recruit
veterans and collect their GI Bill funding while ultimately leaving them with
poor job prospects.
He also aims to investigate how for-profit colleges recruit on military
"Where Secretary DeVos has been insidiously effective is in undermining
rules and undermining protections for students," he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House oversight
committee, said he, too, will conduct rigorous oversight of the Education
Department and for-profit colleges, and explore whether DeVos "exposed student
borrowers to predatory practices and jeopardized their educational goals."
There's also debate among Democrats about how closely to examine potential
conflicts of interest within the Education Department. DeVos has hired several
former executives from the for-profit college industry, which some Democrats
say is ripe for investigation. But Scott said he would rather focus on policies
than the people behind them.
"We've found a lot of confusion between potential bias and conflict of
interest," Scott said. "So long as they have no financial ties now with the
industry, it would be hard to find a conflict of interest."
Beyond oversight, some House Democrats are optimistic they can reach a deal
on the Higher Education Act, a sweeping federal law that governs student
financial aid and could be revised to address topics like campus sexual assault
and student debt forgiveness.
The law has remained unchanged for a decade, but there's new interest in
renewing the bill in the Senate before the chairman of the education committee,
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, retires after 2020.
Democrats also aim to boost money for public schools that serve low-income
students and those with disabilities. They're bracing for a fight if DeVos
renews her push to fund vouchers for private schools.
"Ninety percent of our students are in public schools, and they need more
resources to succeed," said Rep. DeLauro, the Connecticut Democrat on the
appropriations committee. "We should not be siphoning off taxpayer dollars,
which are in demand, to pay for vouchers."