Rep. Virginia Foxx doesn’t believe there’s any role for the federal government in education.
But given that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, Foxx, who took over as chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee at the start of the year, is committed to limiting the federal role in education as much as possible and making the best use of taxpayer dollars.
Before coming to Congress in 2005, she served in the North Carolina Senate and in higher education, including as a dean at Appalachian State University and president of Mayland Community College.
In the near term for K-12, Foxx, a staunch conservative, is focused on rewriting the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.
“I see this as an issue whose time has come, basically. I don’t know of a time on an education issue, perhaps, when there’s been sort of more coming together of various groups of people who say, ‘We have to address this,’ ” she said.
A reauthorization passed her committee unanimously in May, and the full House passed it on Thursday.
Foxx spoke with The 74 at her office on Capitol Hill on May 25, the same day news broke that a top official in the Education Department’s financial aid office was resigning
just before he was set to testify at a House hearing on erroneous student aid payments.
The interview has been edited for length.
The 74: To get started, how do you think ESSA implementation is going?
Foxx: Well, we’re feeling very positive about it. All of the plans are not in yet. I think we will get some better ideas once the plans are in. I actually took one of the plans with me the week before last and read it, haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk with the staff about it, but I was just curious about what the plans would look like….
There weren’t a lot of them that were in. We’re very optimistic about it. What is good is, even at the hearing we had this week, our colleagues on the other side of the aisle were talking about the positive things that had come about in WIOA [the 2015 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which updated federal job training programs], that we had picked up on in ESSA, and they’re talking about accountability issues. So when you’re hearing that from both sides, I think that’s great. Right now people are feeling very positive about it as far as I can tell.
If you were helping North Carolina write their plan, what would you suggest they do or avoid?
… Everybody wants accountability these days. I would urge any state, North Carolina or any state, to be as clear as possible about how they expect to help children get a great education and what they’re going to do when they find places where what should be working is not working.
We just constantly have to make sure that people keep their focus on improving educational outcomes. That’s what we should’ve always been about, and what we should continue to be about. We spend a lot of hardworking taxpayers’ dollars on education. In the past we haven’t always gotten good results.
I think my attitude on this is not unique at all.
The public, our members, are all concerned about the fact that we’ve got a skills gap in this country. I hear it everywhere I go … All [House] members are talking about this. I was in a meeting yesterday with people not on the Education and Workforce Committee, and they were talking about it. They were saying when they’re home, their employers are telling them they can’t find people with the skills to do the jobs …
I see this as an issue whose time has come, basically. I don’t know of a time on an education issue, perhaps, when there’s been sort of more coming together of various groups of people who say, “We have to address this.”
… I guess maybe I should say, I haven’t talked to senators about this. I’m not sure they’re aware this is being raised as much as the awareness of House members. Maybe it’s because we go home every week, and we’re so accessible to our constituents. But we’ve gotten the message. Now what has to happen is for the Senate to get the message.
Were you surprised or disappointed at all to see the administration request less funding for these programs?
My attitude always is, the president proposes and the Congress disposes.
The president talks about the need for a skilled workforce. I didn’t hear all of his speeches when he was overseas, but in Saudi Arabia, I heard excerpts, and he talked about what happened there being “jobs, jobs, jobs,” which Republicans have been talking about for a long time. We talked about it under the Obama economy and administration; we said the issue was jobs. [Former House Speaker] John Boehner talked about this, the whole time, Speaker [Paul] Ryan talks about it. It’s on everybody's mind.
… It’s up to the administration to do its job in utilizing the resources that we have to respond to the needs of the country. It’s up to the Congress to do its oversight on what’s happening. None of us wants to waste money.
I was in a hearing this morning where they were talking about billions of dollars being fraudulently obtained for financial aid, $36 billion, I believe … When we think about all that waste and fraud that’s out there, if we could recapture that money. In fact, [Virginia Democratic Rep.] Gerry Connolly asked, I think, the [inspector general] that question. If we had all the money that’s being fraudulently taken from the federal government, what we could do to reduce the deficit.
…We want to make sure money’s being spent well. You can look at the history of education spending and you see how much money’s been spent. In Title I, for example, it’s the most egregious example, I think. We’ve spent trillions of dollars, and we haven’t moved the reading scores one bit. Not one bit. I think the public is saying, “Folks, shape up.”
… I think what I’m hoping is, with the administration and with the Congress working together, that we can figure out a way to implement the programs that need to be implemented, and cut out the waste, fraud, and abuse, because hopefully we will have people more focused on that than we’ve had in the past.
What do you think of the administration’s school choice proposals that they put out in the budget? I know there’s a concern among some conservatives that federal intervention could lead to more intervention in private schools than conservatives and those schools would like to see.
That’s always been an issue. I heard that issue from people when I was in the state Senate. You know my pat answer about the role of the federal government in education is, as far as I’m concerned, it has no role. When we do play a role, I think it has to be as narrowly focused as possible.
So would you back, say, a tax credit scholarship at the federal level?
I’ll never deal with hypotheticals. I even tell my constituents, when they ask me to sign on to bills, I just say, when I see the final version, I make a decision. I don’t make decisions until I see the final version.
By the way, just as an aside, when I was in the state Senate, I signed on to a bill that said, “Thou shalt so and so.” By the time that bill came up for a vote, it said, “Thou shalt not.” My name was on that bill. You really can never get your name off. That experience taught me a lesson: You wait until the last [minute].
Given your preference for a limited federal role, and everything else that’s going on, any other priorities in the K-12 space?
In the K-12 space? No. We’ll have our hands full doing appropriate oversight and, again, making sure that the department does its job properly and the various people who obtain taxpayer dollars from the department do their jobs right.
We need transparency in everything that’s going on, we need measurements, and, as I said, accountability. But I think that’s true in every single program in the federal government. It isn’t just true in education. We hear these horror stories about the Department of Defense, EPA, wherever it is.
Americans are generous people. They pay their taxes. All they ask of us is, “Please spend my money wisely.” They have every right to ask that.