Department of Education Hits Bottom

February, 2019

Washington -- It pains me to read the ever-increasing, head-shaking accounts of dysfunction at the U.S. Department of Education. I worked there eleven years, from 1994-2005, day and (often) night. From 2005 to the present I have tried to assist, as a private citizen, efforts to make the Department's programs work effectively and within the rule of law. I've invested a large chunk of my life in the cause.

Last month there were reports that morale has hit bottom at the Department. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted:

"The Department of Education placed 27th out of 27 midsize government agencies in the 2018 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" report. Morale in the department has fallen by more than 12 percentage points, one of the biggest drops of all federal agencies."


"DEAD LAST IN EMPLOYEE SURVEY: The Education Department came in last place in an annual ranking of the best places to work in the federal government. Employee engagement across the majority of federal departments dropped in 2018, the survey found. It showed a sharp drop in employee satisfaction regarding leadership, agency missions and pay."

This month came the news that Secretary Betsy DeVos has attempted to remove the acting Inspector General, the Department's watchdog, and replace her with another employee with a conflict of interest. The individual was later reinstated, after which a scathing IG report came out about the Department's failure properly to oversee student-loan servicers. The embarrassing report made national headlines from coast to coast. The sequence of events gives every indication that the Secretary was trying to suppress the report.

Another such critical report, on accreditation of for-profit schools, is apparently in the works. Those who follow the issue, like David Halperin writing for Republic Report, note conflicts of interest, missing funds, and a failure to follow the law to protect students. He is calling for the Secretary and the acting Under Secretary to resign.

Rank-and-file Department employees may not believe there is much they can do in these circumstances to keep the Department honest. If they protest and are punished for it, there is no functioning Merit Systems Protection Board to which they can turn for redress. That agency is likewise dysfunctional, to the point of soon closing its doors.

Employees can, however, turn to Congress. The Lloyd-LaFollette Act gives them protection to share their experiences and to be shielded from retaliation by the appropriations acts that incorporate the statute.

Unless Congress itself rolls over, that is. The coming weeks will be critical to see if the House in particular has the will to investigate and act to restore competence and the rule of law to the Department.

Two Favorite People

February, 2019

Lincoln -- What's not to like about two Nebraskans who have been turning heads recently. One should get the Pulitzer Prize for journalism and the other should be elected President of the United States.

The Pulitzer

If you read the Omaha World-Herald, you know of reporter Henry Cordes' series on how the board responsible for managing the Omaha Public Schools' pension fund lost hundreds of millions of dollars to bad judgment and fraud. The jaw-dropping stories are investigative reporting at its best. Not only that, the OWH has published large pictures of those responsible for the incredible waste. This should make everyone who touches pension funds, or holds any position of trust over public finances of any kind, shiver with due alarm as to their own performance.

This is not the first time Henry Cordes has dived into looking at fraud, waste, and abuse of public monies. For this latest work, on top of his lifetime achievement, he should be in line for a major award.

The Presidency

Lately when I've been asked for whom I'd like to vote for president in 2020, I tell them I have a Nebraskan in mind. He was born in West Point, Nebraska, and graduated from Butte high school and Chadron State College. He is a retired master sergeant in the Army National Guard. He taught English in China for two years and high school social studies in Mankato, Minnesota, for many years thereafter, where he was also a football coach. He went on to become a congressman from Minnesota and more recently was elected governor there.

I met Tim Walz last summer on Capitol Hill, in the Cannon building where he was hosting a meeting on soil health and conservation. He was a member of the House Agriculture Committee and arranged for the meeting to be held in the Veterans Affairs Committee's hearing room, as he was also a member of that committee. Unfortunately, I did not get into a sufficiently long conversation to compare notes with him as a fellow Nebraskan.

What a fine president he'd make: decent, knowledgeable, experienced. He was rated as having the 7th most bipartisan voting record in the House, demonstrating his ability to bring people together. Even Nebraska Republicans would have to give him a look, despite his being a Democrat (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party). A lot of veterans from the enlisted ranks would like the idea of a master sergeant in charge of the Department of Defense, especially if the 2020 alternative is a draft-dodger. Many former high school football players would like the idea of a coach in the Oval Office, who could send poor performers for a lap around the White House when they need it. Governor Tim Walz for President!

What's the Matter with Iowa?

February, 2019

Lincoln -- Kansas has started to come to its senses after years of self-destructive governance chronicled by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas? Now it must be asked, what's the matter with Iowa?

Three uncomplimentary articles have appeared this winter that reflect poorly on Iowa.

The New York Times describes the debt trap state-regulated cosmetology schools set for unwary Iowans who want to become cosmetologists. Student-loan borrowers will find it difficult if not impossible to make enough in this profession to pay off their loans. The article raises a question: knowing that borrowers will be ruined financially, how can state and federal education authorities, and loan servicers and collectors, participate in this shameless exploitation?

The Guardian describes suppression of academic freedom at Iowa State University. Faculty research there must conform to outside funders' expectations, or else. A U.S. Senator withdrew an offer of his papers to ISU out of concern that they would be censored.

An Inside Higher Ed article, focusing on current tenure struggles, recalls a previous low point for ISU decades ago in the margarine wars. Faculty advanced the idea that consumers at home should try margarine during WWII because the troops abroad needed dairy products like butter. Some faculty were forced out by the butter lobby, including two who went on to win Nobel prizes at other universities.

I remember how consumers who wanted to be patriotic, or simply to save money, were discouraged from buying margarine. In the 1940s, we had to buy margarine in packaging that made it look like white lard, then mix in yellow food coloring from a separate capsule if we wanted it to look like butter. As a kid, that was sometimes my household chore.

As a Nebraska taxpayer and UNL alumnus, I should reflect on my own state and institution. I don't think the situation is so bad, at least in comparison to our neighbor. The NU Board of Regents recently strengthened protections for faculty and others who face retaliation for unpopular views (or even popular views that run afoul of outside funders' wishes). It would be a wise administration that never has to see the protections applied.

The Bum's Rush

February, 2019

Washington -- Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, is suggesting an up-tempo pace to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. He wants committee action this spring and final passage this summer.

To be sure, the country needs a major overhaul of the HEA. Federal programs clearly are not working well. Student loan debt is out of control. Many colleges are in financial trouble and several are closing. Corruption is endemic in the for-profit sector. The Department of Education is controlled by the interests it is supposed to regulate.

Senator Alexander offers small-bore remedies, like reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA financial aid application form, simplifying loan repayment options, and replacing one college accountability measure that doesn't work with another that is likewise destined not to.

That's one step forward, one sideways, and one backwards, leaving no net progress at a time when bolder thinking should be in order.

Let me suggest two bigger ideas whose times have come.

• Some in Congress have proposed that student-loan borrowers have more refinancing options. Yes, by all means, and Congress should also provide for borrower refinancing through the federal tax system so that borrowers can repay their loans as part of their federal taxes. Other countries do this successfully. Repayment would be based on income without the complications of having to file annual income statements with separate loan servicers in order to take advantage of income-based repayment. It would also provide student-loan borrowers with consumer protections commensurate with those provided other borrowers. This would be a first step in phasing out the error-prone, self-dealing servicers completely, at a savings of several billion dollars over the period of the HEA reauthorization, which could be reinvested in grant aid for needy students or to upgrade IRS systems, or both.

• In the original HEA of 1965, program participation by institutions required outside matching funds as a quality control safeguard. SEOG and FWS still do, at a matching rate of 25%, in cash or in kind. It's time to put such requirements on all federal student grants at all participating institutions, regardless of sector. Much of the wrangling over special laws and rules for for-profit institutions would be eliminated with true, outside the federal government matching requirements, universally applied.

Senator Alexander's rush to push through an HEA reauthorization comes at a time not only when higher education challenges are more formidable than his solutions, but at a time when the House should be preparing long-overdue oversight hearings into program and personnel issues at the Department of Education, which is in a competency if not a corruption tailspin.

Perhaps Senator Alexander's unstated goal is to tie up staff with HEA reauthorization rather than oversight, and to rush through a bill before investigations can properly be conducted. A good response by the House majority would be to say that the sooner the Department of Education replies to subpoenas, FOIAs, and letters of inquiry, the sooner HEA reauthorization can take place.

In other words, oversight must not suffer a bum's rush on HEA.