The Education Department's independent watchdog said Wednesday that it plans to investigate Secretary Betsy DeVos' decision to reinstate a troubled accrediting agency that was shut down by the Obama administration over allegations of lax oversight.
The department's inspector general is launching the review in response to a Dec. 17 letter from Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrats on congressional committees that oversee education, a spokeswoman for the inspector general told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
In their letter, the Democrats question how closely DeVos reviewed the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges, and they suggest that education officials exaggerated the group's support from others in the industry, which was a factor in DeVos' decision to reinstate it.
A department spokeswoman did not immediately provide comment.
DeVos' Nov. 21 decision to revive the accrediting group has become a flashpoint in a broader debate over the regulation of for-profit colleges. Democrats say DeVos has been too friendly to the industry, while DeVos has said the previous administration went too far working against it.
President Barack Obama's administration cut ties with ACICS in 2016, citing a "profound lack of compliance" with federal standards. The group had been accused of poor oversight after giving its blessing to for-profit chains including Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, which both folded amid widespread allegations of fraud.
But the group challenged the decision in court and won, saying the department ignored 36,000 pages of evidence the accreditor had submitted in its defense. A federal judge in March ordered DeVos to revisit the case.
Her review concluded that the agency was "substantially in compliance" with federal standards and set a deadline of one year to fix lingering problems. She wrote that the Obama administration had either ignored or mischaracterized evidence to reach a "preordained result."
As evidence that ACICS had gained "wide acceptance" from others in the industry — a requirement for all accrediting agencies — the department said it obtained letters of support from nine other accreditors. But eight of those groups later denied offering support, prompting the department to issue an Oct. 15 correction that instead cited letters from four different groups.
Now, Democrats are challenging whether any agencies have backed the group. In the Dec. 17 letter, Murray and Scott say a congressional inquiry found "no evidence of any accreditation agency supporting ACICS' ability to grant or deny accreditation to instructions of higher education." A group of Democrats who reached out to the four additional groups reported that the accreditors "carefully avoided asserting support."
"If the department used incorrect information to determine ACICS' compliance with federal regulatory criteria for recognition, then the department's review process and re-recognition of ACICS put students and taxpayers at significant risk," according to the letter from Murray and Scott.
The Dec. 17 letter also accuses the department of failing to examine ACICS's ability to monitor the finances of its schools. Murray and Scott cite the sudden closure of Education Corporation of America, a major for-profit chain that was endorsed by ACICS before it folded Dec. 5 amid deep financial trouble.
Democrats have widely called on DeVos to rethink her support for ACICS following the closure, which affected roughly 15,000 students.
The letter asks the inspector general to provide a response by Jan. 14. A spokeswoman for the office declined to provide further detail about the inquiry.