Democrats, DeVos clash in fiery hearing that turned personal

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Betsy DeVos

FILE – In this June 5, 2018, file photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations in Washington. Facing a federal lawsuit and mounting pressure to act, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, said she will forgive loans for more than 1,500 borrowers who attended a pair of for-profit colleges that shut down last year. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

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House Democrats clashed with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a Thursday hearing that nearly spun out of control when one lawmaker called DeVos “the most unpopular person in our government” and said she’s “out to destroy public education.”

DeVos was facing the House’s education committee to explain her overhaul of a federal program that erases loans for students who are cheated by their colleges. Some Democrats believe DeVos intentionally stalled the program for more than a year while she rewrote the rules and made it more difficult for students to get loan relief.

Several Democratic lawmakers had taken turns criticizing DeVos’ handling of the program when it turned personal. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said DeVos is the first political opponent she has encountered who is “out to destroy public education.”

“When you approach a public school, you are protested. When you enter, you are booed,” Wilson said. “You are the most unpopular person in our government. Millions will register to vote in 2020. Many will vote to remove you more than to remove the president.”

DeVos did not immediately respond, but the remark drew quick condemnation from Republicans. Rep. Virginia Foxx, the ranking Republican, interrupted to call the comment “absolutely over the line,” saying it would not have been allowed on the House floor. Another Republican tried unsuccessfully to get the remarks removed from the record.

After the hearing, the Education Department issued a statement calling the hearing “a cheap political show trial designed to personally attack and denigrate the Secretary of Education.”

“It was unprofessional, it was outside of the rules of the House, and it set a terrible example for America’s young students who watched those shameless attacks. Our nation’s elected leaders should do better,” spokeswoman Angela Morabito said.

After the chamber settled, lawmakers returned to the original topic and questioned DeVos for more than an hour more. Republicans applauded her work while Democrats blasted her handling of the program, which has become a central dispute in her ongoing feud with the party.

The program, known as borrower defense to repayment, is meant to forgive federal loans for students whose colleges misrepresent the quality of their education or otherwise commit fraud.

It was expanded under the Obama administration to help clear loans for thousands of students who attended Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit college chain that collapsed in 2015 amid allegations that it lied about the success of its graduates in order to get students to enroll.

Soon after, thousands of additional claims were coming from students who attended other for-profit colleges, including defunct chains such as ITT Technical College. But after the Trump administration took office, the process ground to a halt. Loans were no longer being discharged, and a pool of 60,000 pending claims ballooned to more than 200,000.

Democrats have been seeking answers about the backlog for more than a year but say the Education Department has refused to cooperate. DeVos agreed last month to face the House education committee after Democrats threatened to issue a congressional subpoena forcing her appearance.

At the hearing, DeVos shifted much of the blame to the Obama administration. She said she inherited thousands of pending claims and no clear guidance on how to process them. Her predecessors had simply been approving all claims of fraud, she said, leaving it to her to devise a fair way to judge applications.

“Yes, there is a backlog of borrower defense claims,” DeVos said. “To say that I am frustrated by that is an understatement. But rather than focus on why there is a backlog, too many have instead focused on creating more chaos and a circus-like atmosphere.”

Earlier this week, DeVos unveiled a new method for judging claims that she says will help clear the backlog. It’s meant to provide varying levels of loan forgiveness based on the degree of financial harm a student suffers.

Full forgiveness will be granted only to students from programs that produce graduates with median incomes far below their peers in other similar programs. Other defrauded students can get 25% to 75% of their debt erased, depending on the median income of the program they attended.

It’s a departure from the Obama administration, which provided full loan relief in all cases of fraud, and it drew outrage from Democrats, who said it’s based on flawed statistical methods that will leave many cheated students repaying some portion of their loans.

“Those defrauded borrowers have been left with mountains of debt, worthless degrees and none of the job opportunities they were promised,” Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House education committee, said Thursday. “Defrauded borrowers have been cheated twice: First by their college, and then by a Department of Education that refuses to make them whole.”

DeVos said she disagrees with opponents who want to give “blanket forgiveness for just anyone who raises their hand and files a claim.” She said many applications are based on allegations so dubious that “your jaw would drop if you actually read” the reasoning.

Republicans backed DeVos through the hearing, saying she’s making sure taxpayers only cover students’ college debt if they were actually financially harmed. Foxx said the accusations that DeVos purposefully delayed relief are unfair.

“Secretary DeVos is putting reforms in place that will help defrauded students navigate the process of getting the loan relief they deserve,” Foxx said. “Committee Republicans are supportive of these efforts.”

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Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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