By Kevin Kuzma, Editor
Going into a government-led hearing and expecting to make progress on any issue would be a ridiculous notion in modern American politics. At the federal level, such an intention would be an absolute joke and the sort of gesture that would show a complete lack of reality with the usual toiling on Capitol Hill. But when a government organization goes to the trouble of announcing in the Federal Register that it is going to host public hearings, the least they could do is exchange some dialogue with the presenters.
Last week, the Department of Education hosted a series of hearings on its proposed "gainful employment" rule. Given the venue and the guest list, the hearings at the DOE’s headquarters in Washington seemed to hold the capacity for some fireworks over the controversial rule. The DOE opened its doors to host the public meetings as a follow-up to the official comment period for the gainful employment notice of proposed rulemaking that generated some 90,000 letters.
Over two days, about 60 speakers presented to a panel comprised of three DOE members. The speakers were predominantly against the rule and from the ranks of for-profits schools, either students or administrators, and when they didn’t fit that description, the presenters were mostly employers or members of associations that would be negatively impacted if the rule were passed in its current form. Only a handful spoke in favor of the rule.
Yesterday, a report was forwarded to me from investment news site Benzinga. The article was about a recent research note issued from Deutsche Bank that said, “despite expectations, the public hearings (GE) did not involve any exchange between DOE officials and speakers.” According to the report, “the purpose of the hearings, as confirmed by a DoE official, was to not exclude anyone from the discussion on GE, and reinforces the relative unimportance of the hearings vs. the DoE’s private meetings.”
To call the meetings unimportant depends on your perspective. I was in the audience for the public hearings. To say the least, it was an odd experience to travel across the country to see a score of impassioned people – who had traveled as far or farther than I had – let loose on the DEO panel only to be greeted with, “Thank you, next speaker please.” And there was hardly any space between the speakers’ final words and that statement, whether it was Eduardo Ochoa, Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, or Under Secretary James Kvaal. Not one rebuttal was offered so that they might convince the participants that they are somewhat involved. No speakers were asked to clarify a point here or there. There was nothing. No reaction.
Apparently, public hearings are supposed to be one-sided in this manor so that anyone who feels strongly enough against an issue has a chance to weigh in. The representatives from the DOE, though, made it clear from the beginning that the department wasn’t going to tip its hand on how it felt about the gainful employment issue. The impression their demeanor left on me and many others from the for-profit crowd in the audience was sheer arrogance – maybe ambivalence – and what seemed like complete disinterest.
Representatives on the panel shuffled by the session – and sometimes at mid-session. Kvaal was particularly hard to pin down. He started each of the morning sessions on the two days the hearings were held, and then turned his seat over at the first intermission during both sessions he led. Secretary Arne Duncan? He never made an appearance. But the DOE’s perceived rudeness to the presenters does not necessarily speak to the value or the importance of the hearings overall, right?
Maybe the DOE’s intentions were in the right place. The trouble is there wasn’t enough dialogue for someone like myself to discount the way I felt. Had I wasted $400 of Career College Central airline fare and the going room rate on a hotel in Washington to sit in on hearings that didn’t matter?
I decided that the experience mattered for me, if not for the actual statements that were being made, then for the apparent posturing on the DOE’s part. Their actions spoke volumes over the words they did not speak. The DOE, in my opinion, has largely made up its mind on the gainful employment issue despite comments during the public hearings that noted the approval of the rule in its present state would likely land the DOE in a lawsuit. They were told by smaller schools that the salary data they needed would be too cumbersome and that the schools wouldn’t be able to abide by the new stipulations.
For the for-profit school representatives in attendance, the hearings were definitely important. The public setting offered them the chance to vent on a rule that could possibly undermine their students and their livelihoods. The DOE can host as many hearings in their offices as they like. They live and work in Washington. The rest of us boarded planes with the intention of getting somewhere, not to see the arguments of for-profits schools going nowhere.