Betsy DeVos is back in the news. She recently tried to fire the U.S. Department of Education’s Acting Inspector General, Sandra Bruce, and replace her with Phil Rosenfelt, who has been serving as the Department of Education’s General Council. Democrats in Congress criticized the nomination of Rosenfelt because the Office of Inspector General in any federal department is supposed to be an objective watchdog—independent from the operation and policies of the department it oversees.
When Democrats raised concerns, DeVos backtracked and reinstated Sandra Bruce in her old job.
Early in February, the Washington Post’s Laura Meckler explained: “The White House backed down Friday from plans to install a longtime Education Department official as the agency’s acting inspector general following an outcry from congressional Democrats… President Trump had already signed papers designating Philip H. Rosenfelt, a career lawyer who works in the Education Department’s general-council office, as acting inspector general. The move was never officially announced, but Education Department leaders notified the inspector general’s office and lawmakers that it was official.” Congressional Democratic leaders had formally complained: “The conflicts or appearances of conflict are a result of Mr. Rosenfelt’s prior work in the Department’s Office of General Council, which has a role implementing virtually all programs that the inspector general investigates…”
Now, however, it turns out that DeVos’s motive for trying to fire Sandra Bruce was far more suspicious than just an attempt to hire someone who would protect the pet projects of the Department. It looks as though DeVos tried to fire Sandra Bruce because, as part of her job as Inspector General, Bruce was investigating DeVos’s reinstatement last November of Departmental approval for a shady accrediting agency of for-profit colleges, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). Late in 2015, The Obama Department of Education had removed approval of ACICS as a federal accreditor of for-profit colleges.
A brief review…
Why does federal accreditation of for-profit colleges matter? For-profit colleges and trade schools depend for almost all of their operating revenue on federal grants and loans and the G.I Bill, but in order to receive federal loans and grants, a for-profit college must be accredited by a government-approved accrediting agency.
You will remember that two enormous for-profit colleges—Corinthian Colleges (in 2015) and ITT Technical Institutes (in 2016)— suddenly shut down, leaving their students without an education and with lingering debt. The shutdowns occurred after the Obama Department of Education determined they were insolvent and denied them access to future federal loans and grants. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) had accredited these institutions, however, despite that ACICS knew they were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. As a result of its failure to perform its responsibility as an accreditor, the Obama Department of Education stripped ACICS of federal approval to serve as an accreditor on behalf of the federal government.
However, as the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reported, last November DeVos reinstated ACICS: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos… restored federal recognition to a controversial agency that accredits for-profit colleges, reversing an Obama administration decision to put it out of business. The move is one in a number of steps DeVos has taken to undo an Obama-era crackdown that she argues unfairly targeted for-profit schools for scrutiny not applied to other colleges. But critics say she is propping up an industry with a record of misleading students….”
How does the threatened firing of the Department of Education’s Acting Inspector General connect with the reinstatement of ACICS as an approved accreditor of for-profit colleges?
On Tuesday—day before yesterday—NBC News‘s Heidi Przybyla reported: “House and Senate Democrats say they have obtained evidence that a senior official at the Department of Education tried to oust the department’s independent watchdog after she (Sandra Bruce) pushed back on an attempt to intervene in an active investigation of Secretary Betsy DeVos. Lawmakers from four House and Senate committees who oversee the department sent a letter to DeVos on Tuesday suggesting that the effort to replace the department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, had been related to her duties in overseeing the probe of DeVos’s decision to reinstate ACICS, an accreditor that had been stripped of its certification by the Obama administration.” Przybyla continues describing Congressional leaders’ concerns, according to Chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Bobby Scott: “In this case, Scott cites a letter dated Jan. 3, obtained from Education Department deputy secretary Mitchell Zais to Bruce. In the letter, Zais wrote that he found it ‘disturbing’ Bruce was proceeding with the probe of ACICS and ‘asked (her) to reconsider any plan’ to review the department’s decision to restore its accreditation.”
Przybyla continues: “Bruce, Scott said, then ‘communicated her plans to continue’ the investigation and ‘underscored the importance of maintaining independence from the department.’ A few weeks later, Zais notified Bruce that she would be removed from the position.”
Describing a pattern of suspected interference by Trump officials with the work of the departmental Inspector Generals, Przybyla comments: “The exchange between Zais and Bruce as described in Scott’s letter underscores a concern expressed across a number of federal agencies—that the Trump administration is attempting to blur what are supposed to be clear lines between Cabinet officials and the independent investigative arms that exist to police their policies, conduct and use of taxpayer dollars.”
Michael Stratford also covered the story this week for POLITICO: “Congressional Democrats said Tuesday they have uncovered evidence that the Trump administration tried to influence an internal watchdog’s investigation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Five top House and Senate Democrats said that the Trump administration sought to remove the Education Department’s acting inspector general last month after she pushed back on a request to ‘reconsider’ her investigation into DeVos’ move to reinstate a controversial accreditor of for-profit colleges… The lawmakers asked DeVos to turn over more documents relating to the decision to install a new acting inspector general as well as communications between political appointees and the Office of the Inspector General…. They asked the Education Department to provide the records and other information by March 5.”
Advocates for the rights of military Veterans weigh in…
In a stunning NY Times opinion piece on Monday of this week, two Veterans’ advocates, James Schmeling of Student Veterans of America and Carrie Wofford of Veterans Education Success condemn DeVos’s policies to deregulate for-profit colleges. These schools, they explain, take advantage of vulnerable student Veterans who can pay tuition with money from the G.I Bill: “Despite robust objections from roughly three dozen national Veterans and military service organizations, Secretary DeVos elected to eviscerate student protections and quality controls for colleges—particularly those governing the often low-quality, predatory for-profit colleges that target Veterans in their marketing schemes… Why are Veterans the targets?… Hundreds of for-profit schools are almost entirely dependent on federal revenue… Taxpayers, in other words, are largely propping up otherwise failing schools… Overall, by 2017, for-profit colleges had vacuumed up nearly 40 percent of all G.I. Bill tuition and fee payments since the post-9/11 G.I. Bill was introduced. Eight of the 10 schools receiving the most G.I. Bill subsidies since 2009 are for-profit colleges. Six of those 10 have faced government legal action for defrauding students.”
Schmelling and Wofford name specific policies in which DeVos’s department has rolled back regulation of the for-profit college sector: “Ms. DeVos has largely delegated policymaking and enforcement to members of the for-profit college industry, who are now her aides… The fox is running the henhouse. Ms. DeVos fought and is now stalling defrauded students’ right to recourse under the Borrower Defense rule, and she eliminated a rule requiring career colleges to prove their graduates can get a job, even after being officially warned by the department’s Office of Inspector General that the rule was necessary to protect taxpayer funds.”
Schmelling and Wofford conclude: “The Education Department’s Office of Inspector General, following the V.A.’s lead, conducted an investigation of Ms. DeVos after she reinstated the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, which had been discredited. Career civil servants on her own staff had determined that ACICS had failed to meet 57 of 93 basic federal quality standards—including its inadequate oversite of the now-defunct, Veteran-hungry schools, ITT Technical Institutes and Corinthian Colleges. Both were for-profits whose bankruptcies left countless Veteran students with deep debt and rubbish degrees.”
It is easy to understand why Betsy DeVos would want to replace Sandra Bruce, the Education Department’s Acting Inspector General who has been investigating the performance of her boss—Betsy DeVos. One can only hope that pressure from the leaders of key Congressional committees along with pressure from Veterans’ agencies might motivate the President to replace Betsy DeVos herself.