Critic of Obama Policies Will Lead Higher-Education Panel in U.S. House

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Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina (shown in 2008), says if higher education "can't prove the worth of a program, then it needs to examine itself."
January 04, 2011

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a conservative Republican from North Carolina who has questioned some of President Obama's education priorities, will lead the higher-education subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 112th Congress, the congresswoman announced on Tuesday.

Representative Foxx, a former community-college president and professor, said in a statement that she was "excited to roll up my sleeves and work toward making our higher-education system even better while carefully stewarding taxpayer dollars."

In an interview with The Chronicle, Ms. Foxx said she did not seek out the post and does not yet have an agenda. But she implied that she would not shield higher-education programs from spending cuts, and she raised doubts about the need for community colleges to produce five million more graduates with degrees or certificates by 2020, as President Obama has urged.

Asked about Republicans' plans to slash discretionary spending to 2008 levels, Ms. Foxx said higher education "should never be afraid of accountability."

"If it can't prove the worth of a program, then it needs to examine itself," she said. "Wherever taxpayer dollars are being spent, there has to be accountability."

When questioned about whether she supported the president's ambitious graduation goal for community colleges, she said she was "curious to find out what the basis is for the claim that we have to graduate five million more people."

"I don't think the measure of success of a community college is always graduation," she said. "Many times, all people need to learn is a skill and perhaps get certification in an area."

Ms. Foxx has criticized legislation that ended the bank-based program for supplying federal student loans in favor of 100-percent direct lending, in which students obtain their loans from the Department of Education. She said on Tuesday that the bill "eliminated choice, competition, and innovations from student lending," and promised hearings aimed at making "improvements to a very flawed law."

She may also take the lead in Republican efforts to block or overturn recent Education Department rules that could hurt for-profit colleges, though that job could fall to the education committee chairman, John Kline of Minnesota. The most controversial of the rules is the gainful-employment rule, which would cut off federal student aid to programs whose graduates carry high debt relative to income and have low loan-repayment rates.

In the past, Ms. Foxx has been a friend of for-profit colleges. The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit colleges, donated $3,000 to her 2008 re-election campaign through its political-action committee, and employees of Keiser University gave $2,300. Harris N. Miller, the president of the private-sector association, welcomed Ms. Foxx's appointment, saying she has "shown a lot of interest in our sector."

She has also looked out for her state's large military population, supporting increases in tuition benefits for veterans.

Reputation for Being Outspoken

Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education, said she hoped Representative Foxx's interest in efficiency would translate into support for streamlining burdensome regulations.

Ms. Broad, a former president of the University of North Carolina, described the congresswoman as "accessible, open, and direct in expressing her views."

Among college lobbyists, Ms. Foxx is best known for her support of community colleges and her opposition to the creation of a unit-record system for tracking individual students' educational progress. She was also the only member of the House education committee to vote against final legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act in 2008. Ms. Foxx said on Tuesday that she couldn't remember why she voted against the bill.

Ms. Foxx also has a reputation for being outspoken and has sometimes caused a stir with controversial comments. She once said Americans had more to fear from a health-care overhaul than terrorism, and she has denied that Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was killed in 1998, was the victim of a hate crime.

She is among the most conservative members of the House and boasts on her Web site that she was one of just 38 Republicans to score a 100-percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union.

Ms. Foxx grew up poor in the Appalachian Mountains and credits education for her own success. She was elected to Congress in 2004 after spending 10 years in the North Carolina Senate and several years as a professor and an administrator at several North Carolina colleges, including Appalachian State University, Caldwell Community College, and Mayland Community College, where she became president in 1987.

In Congress she joined the education committee in 2005 and left in 2008 to serve on the powerful rules committee. Her appointment to lead the higher-education panel marks her return to the committee.