National education policy divide on display as D’s, R’s spar over controversial education secretary
WASHINGTON — When U.S. House Democrats berated Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday, North Carolina Republicans came to her defense.
Democrats assailed DeVos for several hours at a U.S. House Education and Labor Committee hearing on the Trump administration’s controversial rewrite of a student loan forgiveness policy.
The education secretary appeared on Capitol Hill after a subpoena threat and months of wrangling with Democrats over her policy. The Trump administration overhauled an Obama-era policy for forgiving loans if students were defrauded by their schools. DeVos said that the Obama rule was too lenient.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) questioned DeVos’ stated commitment to students. “Did you not state at the very beginning of your testimony that students are your No. 1 priority?” Wild asked her. “Because listening today, I have a hard time believing that a defrauded borrower would think that you are in their corner.”
Florida Democratic congresswoman Frederica Wilson accused DeVos of being “out to destroy public education.” She called DeVos “the most unpopular person in our government.” And she told the education secretary: “Millions will register to vote in 2020, many will vote to remove you more than to remove the president.”
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the top Republican on the committee, criticized Wilson’s attack.
“One of those last comments was over the line, absolutely over the line,” Foxx said. “To say that Secretary DeVos is trying to destroy public education is going too far.”
She added, “that kind of comment cannot stand in this committee.”
Rep. Mark Walker, another North Carolina Republican on the panel said he thought “all the painful stuff was happening in another committee,” referring to the impeachment proceedings Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee.
“Even though we’re not the featured prime-time spot doesn’t mean you can’t still say some crazy things in this committee as well,” Walker said.
He commended DeVos for her strength. “It’s a little embarrassing to see when it goes personal, like it has, but I don’t know how you’ve continued just to kind of take it for three years and just keep moving forward, but you have, and I think that shows great resolve.”
Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) lauded DeVos for her efforts on the borrower defense rule.
“I appreciate you trying to be a good steward, because we are striking a balance between individuals that want to better themselves to pursue higher education and also to be one that just doesn’t dole out money just because someone claims that they deserve money,” Murphy said.
“I would probably shake my head at some of the comments and the reasons that some people claim they should be reimbursed or whatever.”
After taking office, DeVos signed off on claims approved but not finalized by the Obama administration. She wrote when she signed off on those claims that she did so “with extreme displeasure.” Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of borrowers are reportedly waiting for the government to process their claims.
Wilson asked DeVos Thursday about her “extreme displeasure” comment. “Why would you write that? Why would providing relief to defrauded borrowers whose claims have been reviewed by experienced professionals displease you?”
DeVos repeatedly cited concerns about the process, stating that she wanted to make sure taxpayer dollars were being properly used. “Very simply, there was no process. The claims were simply forgiven without consideration for the individual circumstances,” she said.
Wilson told DeVos, “I want to tell you a story about a borrower from Florida named Jessica Madison that gives me extreme displeasure.”
Madison was featured in a July 2017 report in The Washington Post. She had received a notice from the Education Department earlier that year approving the forgiveness of her $19,000 of debt for a paralegal program at Everest College in Clearwater, Fla., a for-profit school that operated by now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, the Post reported.
But while the notice said the debt would be discharged within 60 to 120 days, it wasn’t. The government began garnishing her paychecks.
“As a result, she did not have electricity for weeks because her garnished checks couldn’t cover the bills,” Wilson said. The garnishments stopped after the Post published the story, Wilson added, but only $2,000 of the $12,000 garnished was refunded. Do you believe it is appropriate to not fully refund wages that were garnished for student loans that were deemed fraudulent?”
DeVos’s reply: “Congresswoman, when a student’s borrower defense claim is deemed to be — they have been financially harmed and we have a process to consider that, the level of that, the students are made whole. We address each student’s issue and situation individually. That’s why it’s important to have a process.”
Asked whether students get all the money back that was taken from them, DeVos answered, “It depends on the various claims.”
Wilson said that “because of these wage garnishments, Ms. Madison could not afford to see a doctor to address the intense pain she was experiencing. When she finally did go to the hospital, she was diagnosed with cancer.” Madison died in October, Wilson said.
“Secretary, can you commit to me today that you will personally ensure that Jessica’s wife will receive the remaining $10,000 owed to her by the government?” Wilson asked.
DeVos said she “can and will look into that specific situation. All of these students’ claims have to be considered individually.”
Wilson — a former teacher, principal and Miami-Dade School Board member — wasn’t satisfied.
Wilson said she’s had “honest disagreements” with Republicans about how to move education forward, she said, “but I’ve never, not one time believed that they were out to destroy public education until I met you.”
Rep. Alma Adams, the lone North Carolina Democrat on the panel, has been a frequent critic of Trump administration higher education policies. She is the co-sponsor a House resolution that would overturn DeVos’ decision to reverse the Obama-era student loan forgiveness policy.
Robin Bravender is the Washington bureau chief for the States Newsroom Network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.