ED’s Office of Inspector General not a neutral source of ed policy recommendations
By design, OIG prioritizes financial propriety above all else when examining complex issues
June 14, 2018— The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) protects students and taxpayers from financial waste, fraud, and abuse through hundreds of forensic audits and investigations of public programs each year. As an independent in-house investigator, OIG often issues recommendations that it believes will improve the integrity of federal programs, although it has no policymaking authority. In a new article for Education Next, Jason Delisle and Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute explain how OIG’s reputation as a neutral “watchdog” can do a disservice in policy debates, since OIG’s recommendations are often interpreted as conclusive despite the agency’s singular focus on protecting taxpayer dollars without consideration for the broader range of effects relevant for complex policy decisions.
“OIG measures the value of all policies using a one-sided balance sheet,” say Delisle and Malkus. “It is incumbent on those who consume its reports to consider its recommendations in this context.” Two recent investigations illustrate how, due to its narrow focus, OIG’s recommendations fail to consider other factors that policymakers value, such as flexibility, innovation, simplicity, administrative feasibility, or cost savings.
Western Governors University (WGU). OIG found last year that WGU’s competency-based degree program through which students work with mentors who are not subject-matter experts violated a long-held requirement for student-instructor interaction, and recommended that the school return more than $700 million in taxpayer dollars. However, this requirement is based on an outdated rule designed to protect against fraudulent correspondence schools. Though Congress proposed that the requirement’s language be updated to account for WGU’s new model, OIG suggested instead that WGU be reclassified as a correspondence school. Following OIG’s recommendation would reduce access to WGU’s program by limiting students’ eligibility for financial aid opportunities, a disconcerting scenario given the school’s record of positive student outcomes, good standing with its accreditor, and recent praise from the Obama administration.
Charter and education management organizations (CMOs). In 2016, OIG reviewed the extent to which the rules and regulations of federal Charter Schools Program Grants—which Congress intended to encourage the growth of quality charter schools in the states—mitigated the risks of mismanagement and fraud. OIG concluded that charter schools’ relationships with CMOs posed a significant risk to the grant program objectives. Their recommendation, however, ran counter to the larger objective of the charter sector: OIG suggested that Congress centralize governance over charters to better manage federal funding and mitigate fraud. Following OIG’s recommendation could ultimately discourage charter school growth, which is already slowing, due to increased regulation and additional paperwork.
To receive an embargoed copy of “Inspecting the Inspector General: Should auditors set the terms of debate on federal education policy?” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at firstname.lastname@example.org. The article will be available Tuesday, June 19 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 30, 2018.
About the Authors: Jason Delisle is a resident fellow focusing on higher-education funding at the American Enterprise Institute, where Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and deputy director of Education Policy Studies.
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.