WASHINGTON — 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 control.
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 regulation.
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 bases.
“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.”
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