Showdown in the Offing

WASHINGTON — Three years ago, Congress stopped then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings dead in her tracks. Cheered on by college leaders, Senator Lamar Alexander and other lawmakers — irked by the Education Department’s aggressive attempts to regulate higher education accreditation and by what they perceived to be the executive branch’s encroachment on their turf — took several legislative steps that effectively blocked the department from issuing new rules on student learning outcomes.

The players and the issues have changed, but signs are emerging that a similar showdown could unfold early next year over the Obama administration’s plan to require for-profit colleges and other vocational programs to prove that they prepare their graduates for "gainful employment." Exactly how such a showdown would shake out is hard to predict, but the likelihood of it taking place grew significantly in recent days.

Citing what he called the "extraordinary bipartisan nature of opposition in Congress" to the Obama administration’s regulatory approach to for-profit colleges, the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives education committee said in an interview this week that lawmakers would pursue legislation aimed at stopping Education Secretary Arne Duncan from putting in place the department’s complex proposal to assess the quality of vocational programs based largely on the ability of former students to repay their student loans.

"We — and here I’m talking about a lot of members of the House, in a bipartisan way — think the secretary needs to change his approach," said Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who will head the House Committee on Education and Labor when the 112th Congress convenes in January. "We are hopeful that he will look at [our concerns] and go back and talk to his folks, and that he will change his approach. But it is also true that we have talked about various legislative solutions that we would be willing to take up if he doesn’t."

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