WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came unprepared to Congress Thursday to explain why she ignored her own department's recommendations to forgive loans to defrauded students, insisting she didn't need to read the relevant memos.
The memos, which the Education Department never provided to Congress but were obtained recently by NPR, are from career department professionals who detailed during the transition to the Trump administration how and why students victimized by bogus for-profit colleges should have loans forgiven.
The prime offenders were defunct Corinthian Colleges and the ITT Technical Institute, which officials concluded had issued worthless degrees. Tens of thousands of students from the institutions appealed for relief under a previously little-used rule called "borrower defense."
The process ground to a crawl after the billionaire secretary took over, prompting numerous lawsuits. DeVos and the department had argued that the Obama administration left the borrower defense program in a shambles, with no clear guidelines or processes for evaluating the legitimacy of claims.
The memos contradict that narrative.
DeVos had no answers, however, when asked about the new memos, and insisted there was no reason to even read them when pressed repeatedly on the issue by Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.).
"Ma'am, I am focused on getting a process right for students and for taxpayers," DeVos said when asked why she came to the hearing without reading the relevant documents.
"Part of getting that process right requires reading," snapped Hayes, a former school teacher.
The exchange caught the notice of AFT union President Randi Weingarten, who tweeted, "Any teacher would have prepared for this question; but here the Secretary of Education did not #denierinChief."
DeVos later suggested to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that the documents were irrelevant since the were produced under the Obama White House.
"Administrations changed. And polices changed," DeVos said.
She also never gave an answer for why the new documents were not turned over to the Education Committee, saying only that the department had given the committee some 18,000 other documents.
Included with the memos were detailed stories of borrowers who did their schoolwork, then found themselves unable to get work from employers who refused to recognize their credentials from the fraudulent schools. Department officials agreed in late 2016 and early 2017 to help those students, but DeVos only signed off -- "with extreme displeasure" -- on cases that had already gone through full reviews.
No determinations were rendered at all over a one-year span after a judge ruled the Education Department could not peer into students' Social Security accounts to detect their earnings. But the department continued to collect on thousands of disputed debts until a judge in October held DeVos in contempt. She told the committee the collections had been a mistake, and that wronged students had been made whole.
Still, she suggested some students might not yet have had impacts on their credit scores repaired. She also said making people whole did not include covering costs for lost jobs or apartments some of the borrowers suffered while their credit scores where improperly battered.
The Education Department rolled out a new process earlier in the week for evaluating whether and how much debt should be forgiven, but it is much less generous than recommended by the officials who left the memos for the incoming secretary.
The new system looks at how much people earn who went to different schools with similar programs, and compares that to the earnings of defrauded students to see how much forgiveness they should get.
Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) argued that the new formula is so stingy that a student with a worthless degree would actually need negative earnings to get full relief.
DeVos has maintained that even students who went to the notorious Corinthian Colleges benefited from their learning. "I don't agree with that narrative. I think there are many students that received valuable education from Corinthian," she said.
DeVos said the department is again beginning to issue forgiveness determinations after setting up the new process, with the number of outstanding cases now approaching 300,000.
The dispute over memos was not the only acrimonious part of the hearing.
Rep. Fredericka Wilson (D-Fla.) sparked recriminations from Republicans by accusing DeVos of trying to harm students.
"I've never, not one time, believed that they [Republicans] were out to destroy public education until I met you," Wilson said. "Why has every decision you made harmed students instead of empowering them?"