- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

In a time of divided government, Republicans must learn to work with a Democratic Congress. They could surely look to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ testimony yesterday before the House Committee on Education and Labor for an example. Mrs. Spellings’ lesson is this: Get the discussion moving in the zone of proper, forward-looking oversight, where these hearings belong — in this case, student loan abuses. Don’t take the partisan bait. Acknowledge problems where they exist, identify solutions and then invite the Democratic Congress to help fix it.

Granted, this problem is tailor-made for bipartisanship. In Mrs. Spelling’s case, it lies with the approximately 30 percent of the $85 billion college-loan industry in private hands, where abuses of “preferred lender” lists and undue coziness with college loan officers have resulted from gaps in existing law. The headlines recount lenders wining and dining college loan officers, including offering colleges a cut of the profits, to secure their place on the lists. The lists are crucial, since many hundreds of companies are competing in a market where differentiation is difficult. On Wednesday the House passed the bipartisan Student Loan Sunshine Act to crack down on conflicts of interest.

Another problem is a fault in the landmark No Child Left Behind law’s provisions for the “Reading First” program, a $1 billion-a-year “scientific” reading initiative, which has allowed officials to walk through a lucrative revolving door with textbook contractors. This, apparently, is a completely legal loophole in NCLB.

Mrs. Spellings welcomed the committee’s interest — and was believable when she said so. She praised the House’s loan-industry bill as “an important first step in this process.” She, too, deplores contractors and private companies profiting at students’ expense. Who doesn’t? But she was very quick to point out the limitations in the law that prevent her from solving the problem — and this seemed to knock Chairman George Miller, California Democrat, off his partisan horse somewhat.

Rep. Buck McKeon, California Republican, who seemed to ask only about the Clinton administration, was overshadowed by Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, who made sure the scope of the problem, the legal jurisdiction and the chicanery of New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo were all on record. It emerged that Mr. Cuomo did not even phone Mrs. Spellings a single time before announcing to great fanfare this spring that the education secretary and her advisers were “asleep at the switch.” He hasn’t called her since, either. It’s also worth noting that only Mr. Keller seemed truly interested in what we consider a much larger problem: tuition inflation. Of course, federally subsidized student loans are the great driver in that regard, as are university empire-building and administrative bloat.

The lesson here is not so much “getting ahead” of the problem, as so many Washington politicians often recommend, as it is being genuinely committed to fixing it. Mrs. Spellings seemed that way yesterday. We look forward to the bipartisan fix.

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