Iron Triangles: Part VII

May, 2018

Washington -- Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has twice this year admonished Education Department employees that they must not communicate with others outside the department. The first was a crackdown of communications between budget and appropriations officials. The second is more general warning that employment at the department is a "public trust" and all outside communications must be cleared, even by departmental attorneys if necessary.

All I can say is that if there is any breach of the public trust going on, it is being committed by the Secretary and her appointees, who are rife with conflicts of interest and whose policies are inimical to the very concept of public trust. The latest violation of such a trust is the disestablishment of the office to police fraud by for-profit colleges. As one victim of the DeVos reign put it, “Those people who are in those high positions — they need to look at themselves....I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”

Viewed historically, however, this behavior is typical of what happens when outside interests capture the government and turn it to their own ends through establishment of an iron triangle. Currently the for-profit college industry has its people in control at both the Education Department and at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. They are dismantling consumer protections everywhere they find them.

It is not the first time. From 2002-2006 the House committee was led by Congressmen John Boehner and Buck McKeon. McKeon owned stock in a for-profit college (Corinthian) when he presided over higher education policy. The Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the time, Sally Stroup, had been a lobbyist for the for-profit college industry as well as a former member of the committee's staff. Together, they pushed through repeal of a previous consumer protection statute known as the fifty-percent rule.

The rule had been put in place after Senator Sam Nunn's hearings on corruption in the for-profit sector in 1990. The idea was that a college could not offer more than fifty percent of its programs online, in order to discourage fly-by-night online operators. When McKeon and Stroup got the consumer protection repealed, the for-profit industry boomed.

In 2012, Senator Tom Harkin opened more hearings on fraud in the for-profit college industry. Two years later, McKeon left the House, but not before had taken advantage of the iron triangle to recover from his California western-wear store's bankruptcy, in part by using political campaign contributions from the for-profit college industry to pay his wife to be his campaign manager. In the meantime, after Stroup's departure from the Education Department, she went back to work for McKeon in the House and eventually returned to her position as a very well paid lobbyist for the industry through 2015.

The DeVos threats against Education Department employees who speak up against iron triangle behavior of any kind will likely succeed, I'm afraid. One reason is that federal employees are kept in the dark about the Lloyd-Lafollette Act, under which they may legally and properly share their concerns about waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement with Congress and its agencies. It would be good to see Education Department employees take the "public trust" argument and turn it right back against iron triangle behavior wherever and whenever it occurs. The DeVos administration is nothing if not a gross abuser of programs intended to help students and families, not to ruin countless lives with worthless degrees and unmanageable student debt.