By:  Erica Green
Source: New York Times

House Democrats Prepare to Scrutinize DeVos’s Education Department

The last face-to-face meeting between Representative Robert C. Scott and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ended in an awkward cliffhanger.

At a hearing last May of the House Education Committee, Mr. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, challenged the secretary’s assertion that she was holding states accountable for achievement gaps between white and minority students as required by a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Mr. Scott, unconvinced, asked more pointedly: How can you assure us that you are following the law if you do not even make states calculate the performance of the different student groups we want to measure?

Ms. DeVos dodged the question.

Mr. Scott is now the chairman of the committee, and he is not taking silence or evasion for an answer. With control of the House and Senate divided, and President Trump in charge of the executive branch, the prospects for the House Democrats’ legislative agenda for education may be limited, but their appetite for oversight of the Education Department appears limitless.

“One of the problems we had in the minority is we asked a lot of questions that have not been answered,” Mr. Scott said in an interview. “Now that we’re in the majority, we can ask the same questions with the expectation that we’ll get an answer.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Scott added to a pile of inquiries stacking up at the department, this time questioning a recent move to replace the Education Department’s acting inspector general, who is investigating Ms. DeVos’s decision to reinstate a troubled accreditor of for-profit colleges and universities. Among other answers he is still waiting for is Ms. DeVos’s justifications for rescinding policies meant to protect black students from being disproportionately suspended and placed in special education and student borrowers from predatory lenders and higher-education diploma mills.

Mr. Scott said he is not itching to haul Ms. DeVos and her staff to Capitol Hill hearings to get the answers. “Theater doesn’t advance anybody’s agenda,” Mr. Scott said. “I’m interested in what research and evidence they used to come to these conclusions.”

Under the leadership of Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, the committee passed laws strengthening career and technical education as well as juvenile justice programs. She also proposed an aggressive higher-education bill that gutted regulatory requirements and championed work force training programs. She called on Ms. DeVos to testify only once.

Ms. Foxx said she hoped the committee would maintain its bipartisan spirit. “It’s my hope that we exercise our oversight responsibilities by asking the right questions for the right reasons to ensure faithful execution of the laws we’ve written,” she said.

Mr. Scott, the first African-American man elected to Congress from Virginia since the 1890s and the third to lead the Education Committee, has outlined a wide-ranging oversight agenda for the committee.

Among the issues it plans to examine: the carrying out of the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act; recommendations from the Federal Commission on School Safety led by Ms. DeVos in response to the mass school shooting last year in Parkland, Fla.; and the department’s role in the rebuilding of schools in Puerto Rico, in the Virgin Islands and in other areas affected by disasters. In the higher-education sector, the committee also plans to scrutinize the department’s administration of financial aid programs.

Mr. Scott plans to champion bills that would pump $100 billion into public school infrastructure, limit the use of restraint and seclusion practices of special-education students and increase low-income and minority students’ access to a four-year college or university.

But when it comes to oversight, “just asking the questions usually gets people to act,” he said.

That approach has gotten results. A recent move by the White House to replace the Education Department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, was reversed shortly after Mr. Scott, joined by other Democratic leaders, sent a letter to Ms. DeVos questioning the decision.

The move, first reported by Politico, revealed the partnership developing between Mr. Scott and Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Mr. Cummings said in a statement that he plans to scrutinize “countless decisions that have negatively impacted students across the country, including dismantling protections against predatory for-profit lenders.”

In the letter on Tuesday, Mr. Scott and Mr. Cummings posed a second round of questions to the Education Department about perceived attempts to intervene in the inspector general’s investigation into the secretary’s reinstatement of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.

The accreditor’s recognition was revoked by the Obama administration in 2016 after the collapse of two for-profit chains, ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges, and a history of failing to comply with federal rules. Ms. DeVos reinstated the agency last year after a judge found that the Obama administration’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

According to the Democrats’ letter, Ms. DeVos’s deputy secretary, Mick Zais, wrote to Ms. Bruce in the weeks before her replacement and asked that any investigation of the accreditor include a review of the Obama administration’s actions.

“We are concerned that these actions by the Deputy Secretary represent a clear attempt to violate the statutory independence of the OIG,” the Democrats wrote, referring to the Office of Inspector General.

Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the department “would never seek to undermine the independence of the inspector general.”

“For anyone to state otherwise is doing so with no basis in fact and purely for political gain,” she said.

Ms. Hill said the Education Department “has been and will continue to be responsive to information requests from Congress,” and that Ms. DeVos has an open invitation to meet one on one with members of both parties.

“The secretary will continue to work with lawmakers who share the goal of rethinking education in order to improve opportunities for all students, expand K-12 education options and ensure students have a multitude of pathways to success post-high school,” she said.

Ms. DeVos has some ground to make up with Democrats. According to an analysis of Ms. DeVos’s calendar by Education Week, she had more than 130 meetings or phone calls with Republican lawmakers or their top aides in the first year and a half of her tenure compared with about a dozen with Democrats.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, who will lead the appropriations subcommittee that funds education, said Ms. DeVos is one of the few cabinet secretaries she has not met with.

“They’re hell bent to do what they want to do, and think we don’t count for anything,” she said.

Ms. DeLauro, who has clashed publicly with Ms. DeVos, said she plans to “hold the secretary accountable for the hollowing out of the Education Department” through staffing and program cuts. She said she will fight recurring proposals to create a $1 billion program to finance vouchers for private and parochial school tuition, cutting after-school programs for low-income students and zeroing out funding for teacher training. Instead, Ms. DeLauro said she wants to champion new investments like community schools and early childhood education.

“I believe that, overall, the mission of the Department of Education these days is to privatize public education, and I want to block them,” she said. “On the other hand, I view this as my opportunity to look at how we can provide new opportunities for new people.”

Representative Mark Takano of California, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he will scrutinize how Ms. DeVos’s proposals to deregulate for-profit colleges could allow for abuses of the G.I. Bill, which provides veterans with tuition assistance for higher education. He recently told a group of college accreditors, “I promise to continue to do my part to crack down on predatory institutions.”

When the Democrats took the House, Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, urged Ms. DeVos to step down rather than subject herself to “show trials.”

Now that Ms. DeVos has shown no signs of resigning, Mr. Petrilli anticipates that Democrats will discover they have limited power and the department will carry on, immune to bad press.

“This is a department that doesn’t have much to lose,” he said.