Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, sparred on Twitter this week after a federal judge criticized DeVos for flagrantly violating a court order to stop collecting loan payments from students of a for-profit college that closed amid scandal.

On Tuesday, Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco said in a court filing that she was “deeply disturbed” by the Education Department’s “lack of compliance with the injunction … and the sheer scale of violations.” Kim said possible punishment could include a finding of contempt and monetary sanctions.

A day earlier in a hearing, the judge had gone further: “I’m not sending anyone to jail yet, but it’s good to know I have that ability. I’m most concerned with helping the people who were harmed by this — this problem that the government created.”

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The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment about what the judge said or about Warren’s comments.

The judge’s warnings prompted Warren to tweet this, along with a link to a Bloomberg News article: “Secretary @BetsyDeVosED is such a failure at @usedgov that she may be held in contempt for refusing to follow the law & stop punishing scammed students. Think about that: she’d rather risk sanctions or even jail than do her job to help America’s students.”

And this: “A federal judge was ‘astounded’ by @BetsyDeVosED’s treatment of student borrowers. She said ‘At best it is gross negligence, at worst it’s an intentional flouting’ of judicial orders to help students.”

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And this: “@usedgov needs to follow the law & cancel the student loans of scammed Corinthian Colleges students. And if @BetsyDeVosED wants to work for predatory for-profit colleges, she should resign & find herself a new job.”

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DeVos responded with this: “Loan servicers made an error on a small # of loans. We know & we’re fixing it. I’m leading a total overhaul of @FAFSA loan servicing, which you know and support. It should be beneath a senator to lie, but unfortunately it’s not your first time…this week.”

The education secretary linked to a Fox News story suggesting Warren had lied when she said she was fired from a teaching job after she became visibly pregnant. There is no strong evidence that Warren was lying.

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Warren has been critical of DeVos since she became education secretary in 2017. During her February 2017 confirmation hearing, DeVos was grilled by Warren about the very issue at the center of the tweets this week: the department’s policy on for-profit colleges.

Warren asked DeVos how she planned to protect against waste, fraud and abuse by for-profit universities, citing Trump University, which President Trump founded. He wound up paying $25 million to settle lawsuits by students who said they were cheated; Trump said he paid the money so he could focus on getting ready to run the country.

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I wrote this in 2017 about their exchange in the confirmation hearing:

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DeVos said, “If confirmed, I will certainly be very vigilant.” Warren persisted, “I’m asking how.” When DeVos said “individuals with whom” she will work in the department will ensure that federal money is properly used, Warren further dug in, and then explained to DeVos that there is actually a group of rules already on the books, the gainful employment regulations. “All you have to do is enforce then,” Warren said, asking DeVos if she would do so. She wouldn’t commit.
The gainful employment regulations are meant to protect students and taxpayers by withholding federal student aid to career training programs that leave students buried in debt with few opportunities to repay. Asked by Warren if she would enforce the regulations, DeVos said: “We will certainly review that rule, and see if it is actually achieving what the intentions are.”
Warren: “I don’t understand about reviewing it. We talked about this in my office. There are already rules in place to stop waste, fraud and abuse. . . . Swindlers and crooks are out there doing back flips when they hear an answer like this.”

More recently, Warren tweeted this, in July 2019: “Betsy DeVos is the worst education secretary we’ve ever had. We need someone who will actually fight for our students, which is why I’ve pledged to nominate a former public school teacher to lead @USEdGov in a Warren administration.”

Warren is not the only candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who has criticized DeVos.

Among the others is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He ran national campaign ads on social media criticizing DeVos’s policies, saying she has “turned her back on lower-income and middle class Americans” by stalling or reversing Obama-era regulations designed to protect students from predatory lenders and for-profit colleges.

Last month, former vice president Joe Biden tweeted this: “Four years of Betsy DeVos is more than enough. As president, I’ll name a Secretary of Education who is actually an educator.”

Warren had earlier made the same promise, as did a few other candidates.

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