Published by the Wall Street Journal
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s two-year effort to chisel away at the Obama administration’s education agenda has repeatedly been blocked by federal courts. Now, she is trying a different tactic: not enforcing the rules.
Several court rulings have preserved Obama-era rules that the agency has tried to scale back, including a crackdown on the for-profit college industry and a mandate regarding civil rights in special education. But the Education Department hasn’t moved to enforce the regulations, achieving the same effect.
Mrs. DeVos has defended the failure to enforce the regulations, citing the possibility of appeals, the cumbersome nature of implementation or other technicalities that make following the rules impossible.
“We feel students should be treated as individuals and not as statistics or groups,” Mrs. Devos said at a House Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, in response to a question about when her agency would move on the special-education decree. The sentiment captures Mrs. DeVos’s feelings about many Obama-administration policies: that they painted students, or entire categories of schools, with a broad brush.
The slow-walking tactic means Mrs. DeVos is effectively achieving her goal of stalling those initiatives despite losing legal challenges. Democrats and student activists say she is ignoring federal mandates so she can put her conservative imprimatur on education.
The lack of action has left students, schools and states in limbo, with borrowers waiting on loans that federal rules say should be erased and states unsure how to implement civil-rights policies that, if left unaddressed, could land them in court.
“Multiple federal judges have ruled against Secretary DeVos’s delay tactics, so she needs to stop dragging her feet and start implementing these rules for some of our students who need the most protections,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee.
In March, a federal court in Washington said the Education Department must follow an Obama administration policy that aimed to reduce the high proportion of black and Hispanic students in special-education classes. At the House Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, Mrs. DeVos said her agency is still reviewing the court’s decision and “moving toward implementation.”
The Education Department has posted a notice online acknowledging the rule is in effect, though advocates say education officials have provided states no guidelines on how to properly carry it out.
“In our opinion, the court’s order is in effect, and the department can’t pretend that nothing has changed when it in fact has,” said Selene Almazan, legal director of the Counsel of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which filed the suit against the rule’s delay.
A similar dynamic played out over an Obama-era rule, known as borrower defense to repayment, that qualifies students to have their loans erased if their schools had defrauded them. Mrs. DeVos argued, in an attempt to delay the rule’s implementation, that it was too costly to the government and placed an excessive financial burden on the schools accused of defrauding students.
The rule took effect in October after a court ruled that Mrs. DeVos improperly tried to delay it.
Mrs. DeVos is now spearheading a rewrite of the rule, a draft of which would make it tougher for students to have their loans erased. But the Education Department hasn’t approved any of the thousands of borrower defense claims sitting at the agency since the summer, Mrs. DeVos acknowledged at Wednesday’s hearing. “The Department has a duty to protect students from fraud while also safeguarding taxpayer dollars,” said Liz Hill, a department spokeswoman.
The rule doesn’t specify a certain timeline for the claims to be addressed, but advocates say students are being left in limbo.
“She has a moral and legal responsibility to help students to become whole again after they’ve been defrauded,” said Allie Aguilera, policy and government director of Young Invincibles. “I don’t understand how, after a legal battle, how this is still even a question.”
For Tasha Rincon, a 37-year-old mother in San Jacinto, Calif., who filed a borrower defense claim against Everest College in 2012, the lack of action has meant her initial $35,000 in loans has swelled to $55,000.
Ms. Rincon enrolled in a criminal justice associates program in 2008, and the school promised she could graduate with a $45,000-per-year job as a probation officer. But the relationships with employers the school claimed turned out to be simply online job listings, she said, and she wasn’t able to find a job in the field.
Everest shut in 2015 along with the collapse of its parent company, Corinthian Colleges.
The Education Department did forgive about $129 million in debt of former Corinthian Colleges students, under a different provision of the same rule, though Mrs. DeVos did so after her agency was sued for not acting more quickly.
The department has also effectively stalled another Obama rule, technically in effect, that would cut off federal funds to the worst-performing career programs at primarily for-profit colleges.
The rule requires programs to be sanctioned if a complex ratio of their students’ debt to earnings after leaving a school is found to be in excess for two consecutive years. Mrs. DeVos hasn’t published the necessary data, citing a disagreement with the Social Security Administration, which must help provide it.
“The department has hidden behind this [Social Security] decision as a rationale for not implementing this gainful-employment rule,” Rep. lori Trahan (D., Mass.) told Mrs. DeVos on Wednesday.