Sam Tanenhaus, the former editor of the NY Times Book Review, is quite a writer, and it is fascinating to contrast the Betsy DeVos we’ve come to know in the months since she became U.S. Secretary of Education with the Betsy DeVos we meet in Tanenhaus’s Vanity Fair profile of the western Michigan DeVos Empire. Tanenhaus writes: “In the solar system of elite Republican contributors, Richard DeVos Sr., who died Thursday at age 92—one of the two founders of Amway, the direct-sale colossus—occupied an exalted place, and his offspring did too. Since the 1970s, members of the DeVos family had given as much as $200 million to the G.O.P. and been tireless promoters of the modern conservative movement—its ideas, its policies, and its crusades combining free-market economics, a push for privatization of many government functions, and Christian social values. While other far-right mega-donors may have become better known over the years (the Coorses and the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson and the Mercers), Michigan’s DeVos dynasty stands apart—for the duration, range, and depth of its influence.”
Tanenhaus suggests that, “Trump was a useful vehicle for advancing nationally the revolution the DeVoses had already enacted in Michigan. There was, for instance, Betsy DeVos’s campaign to undo the state’s public education system and replace it with for-profit and charter schools that, as she had put it two decades earlier, shared her mission of ‘defending the Judeo-Christian values that made us what we are, but which are under attack from the liberal elite.’ There was also the campaign she and her husband had waged to weaken Michigan’s unions… Other lessons can be found in the pulp-fiction career of Betsy DeVos’s younger brother, Erik Prince, the former navy SEAL, who started Blackwater—the mammoth security company…. Behind all this is the story of a family dynasty that has been a driving force on the far right—the Michigan Medicis of Donald Trump’s America.”
So… how’s it going for Betsy after nearly 20 months on the job?
Last week a House and Senate conference committee approved a compromise education appropriations bill for FY 2019. It must still be voted on by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, but Education Week‘s federal education policy reporter Andrew Ujifusa draws the following conclusions: “(T)hrough this agreement, members of Congress who oversee spending are sending the Trump administration a pretty clear signal about what they want to pay for and how much they want to pay… In their fiscal 2019 blueprint, the Trump team wanted to shrink or eliminate several programs. Big-ticket items the administration wanted to eliminate include the Title IV Part A block grant (for student support and academic achievement), Title II aid for educator preparation, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers (a program that supports after-school programs). They also wanted to shrink the budget for Impact Aid (for school districts that encompass Indian Reservations or federal military installations). All of these programs are not only preserved in the spending deal—they get raises. The spending increases they would get aren’t huge by percentage. But Congress is sending a clear message that it sees value in those programs.”
Ujifusa continues: “It’s not fair to say that Trump and DeVos have whiffed completely on their priorities. A $40 million increase for charter school grants fits with DeVos’ general push to direct more money to school choice programs. However, that increase is $60 million less than what the president wanted for charters. He and DeVos had a lot less luck on other fronts. Lawmakers completely ignored the administration’s signature school choice proposal for next year, a $1 billion ‘opportunity grants’ program to promote choice. And more broadly Capitol Hill is so far refusing to cut spending like the Trump team wants.” The Department’s two largest and most essential grant programs—Title I to assist school districts where child poverty is concentrated—and funding for programming mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—receive modest increases in the appropriations agreement just reached in the House-Senate conference committee.
Unable to move her school choice agenda through Congress, DeVos’s department has taken several steps to reduce Obama-era regulations intended to protect students from unscrupulous for-profit colleges that depend on students’ borrowing from the federal government to pay tuition. The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explain that DeVos has taken steps to cancel federal Borrowers’ Defense to Repayment rules which, during the Obama Administration, allowed students to file claims for loan forgiveness if they could prove they had been defrauded or their college had been shut down. In July, DeVos proposed new rules to “require students to prove schools knowingly deceived them if they want their federal loans canceled. And it scuttled an Obama administration provision that allowed similar claims to be processed as a group. Instead, students will have to prove their claims individually.”
However, on September 12, a federal judge blocked DeVos’s action on Borrowers’ Defense to Repayment in a decision following a lawsuit brought by 19 states and the District of Columbia. For POLITICO, Michael Stratford reports: “A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s various delays of Obama-era regulations governing loan forgiveness for defrauding borrowers were illegal. U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss sided with consumer advocates and Democratic attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia who had challenged the Trump administration’s postponement of the regulations, which are known as ‘borrower defense to repayment.’ DeVos had taken action to delay those rules until July 1, 2019, in order to give the Education Department enough time to rewrite them. But in a sweeping 58 page decision, the judge ruled that DeVos’ actions were ‘unlawful,’ ‘procedurally invalid,’ and ‘arbitrary and capricious.’ ”
Washington state’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson commented on the importance of Judge Moss’s decision to block cancellation of Obama-era Borrowers’ Defense to Repayment rules: “These protections prevent predatory for-profit colleges from taking advantage of student loan borrowers. Thousands of Washingtonians are shouldering crippling debt as a result of these predatory practices, and these rules offer real relief from their financial struggles. This Administration can’t arbitrarily block rules simply because it doesn’t like them.”
It is also becoming evident that the battle pitting consumer advocates and state attorneys general against the DeVos Department of Education over student borrowing will not end with Judge Moss’s recent decision. Controversy is growing around the Department’s failure to oversee the huge companies the Department of Education hires as contractors to process student loans. POLITICO‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The department, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, has thrown roadblocks in front of state law enforcement officials and federal regulators who are pursing legal action against the companies, which include student loan giant Navient…. The interference with state investigations comes as consumer advocates and Democrats blast the Trump administration for dismantling a broad range of protections for students who take out federal loans to attend college… Navient, one of the largest loan servicers, is defending itself against six separate lawsuits brought by state attorneys general in Illinois, Washington, Pennsylvania, California and Mississippi as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The company is accused of overcharging borrowers and steering them into more expensive repayment plans, allegations that it denies. But the Trump administration has instructed Navient and other companies that collect federal loans to refuse demands for information by state attorneys general and others….”
Stratford continues: “DeVos told Congress in March that student loan servicers face ‘appropriate federal oversight’ by her agency. But a July report submitted to the White House by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin criticized the Education Department’s oversight of the companies… Those concerns were also reinforced by a GAO report last month that department officials had carried out only two of six recommendations meant to address weaknesses in how the agency monitored and evaluated the student loan servicers.”
In a September 4, Washington Post column, Laura Meckler considers DeVos’s record on her lifelong purpose—the expansion of school choice. Meckler credits the check and balance of Congress for blocking the federal expansion of school privatization: “Congress already has said no to her budget proposals. A proposed tax credit supporting voucherlike scholarships has died. A new spending bill again offers little for school choice enthusiasts. And if Democrats gain power after this fall’s midterm elections, chances for action would fall even further. For all practical purposes, the fight is over and she lost.”
It has become apparent that the third branch of government, the judiciary, is now stepping in to block DeVos’s efforts to ease regulation of the for-profit colleges and student loan processors which have been ripping off vulnerable students.
All this is a sign that, at least to some degree, the checks and balances of our federal government are working to keep bad things from happening.