BANNER ELK, N.C. — Virginia Foxx pulled herself up by her own bootstraps and wants every American child to be able to do the same.
As the 73-year-old GOP lawmaker and former community college president is poised to assume the leadership of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, she plans to help deliver on that idea — or at least, erase what she regards as Barack Obama’s wrongheaded approach.
Foxx, who boasts she was “tea party before the tea party started,” is blunt about her agenda: She says she will do everything possible to expunge most of Obama’s education legacy. She is a strong supporter of school choice as President-elect Donald Trump rolls out his $20 billion school choice plan emphasizing vouchers — and she expects to have an ally in Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
“I’m going to push to diminish the role of the federal government in everything it’s in that isn’t in the Constitution,” Foxx said in an interview in her district. “That’s education, health care. All the things that the federal government does that it should not be doing. I’m happy to diminish its role.”
Foxx’s small-government views are rooted in the Blue Ridge Mountains in a slice of Appalachia where she grew up without power and running water and began working as a weaver at age 12 to help support her family — experiences that convinced her it’s an individual’s hard work, and not federal programs, that lead to success.
She said she would love to dismantle the federal Education Department altogether, but acknowledges that that is unlikely in the near term.
“I definitely don’t think the Department of Education has any business doing all the things that it’s doing,” she said. “But I don’t think you do it overnight. I think you have to devolve it over time.”
Foxx reels off a list of possible targets: The billions doled out annually under Title 1 — a Great Society program that boosts funding to schools serving poor students. The money is now considered a possible funding source for Trump’s school choice plan to allow low-income students to select private or charter schools. Despite the trillions spent on the existing program, “we haven’t changed reading levels one bit. Not one bit,” she said. “They are the same they were when we started putting out that money in 1965. Something’s wrong with the system.”
(Scores on the Nation’s Report Card show that reading scores for students ages 9 and 13 have been going up since the 1970s, although scores for 17-year-olds have remained largely stagnant.)
She wants to re-examine the role of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which conservatives revile for its focus on issues such as campus sexual assault and bathroom access for transgender students. “The office deserves some scrutiny, let me just put it that way,” Foxx said.
She’d like to reverse a Democratic Congress’ decision to have the Education Department, not banks, issue student loans — because “that’s not a function of the federal government.” And she wants to reverse its regulations targeting for-profit colleges — cutting off financial aid to programs where students leave with high debt and poor job prospects.
Battles past and future
It’s an ambitious and some would say, startling, to-do list and has unnerved not just Democrats, but civil rights organizations, unions and even establishment K-12 and higher-ed groups, who worry her views are too harsh and will hurt vulnerable groups.
“There’s a history in this country of under-serving children of color and low-income children and we still have gross inequities when it comes to serving these populations,” said Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post, a nonprofit communications group, who also worked in Obama’s Education Department.
Civil rights groups, among others, are aghast.
Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, views this as a time when federal civil rights and consumer protections should be ramped up — not put on the chopping block.
Just scaling back federal education efforts “across the board doesn’t do anything except shoot ourselves in the foot,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), an education committee member, who added that he has tremendous respect for Foxx.
By all accounts, Foxx has the confidence of Republican leaders — among them, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, with whom she has a years-long relationship.
She dates her friendship with Pence to 2005, when she bucked the GOP to become one of just a handful of lawmakers to vote against a $50 billion plan for Hurricane Katrina because there was no oversight or plan on how the money would be spent. Foxx said she and Pence talked afterward and decided to work together to find ways to pay for future spending increases.
She is also an ally of Speaker Paul Ryan, who tapped her to help write “A Better Way,” considered a new version of the “Contract With America” orchestrated by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich as part of the 1994 Republican revolution. Ryan also called on her to serve as a co-chair of the Republican Party’s platform committee, which called for school abstinence programs; encouraging high school electives in the Bible as literature; and reversing the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling.
Foxx is deeply religious. Comfortable in both the Baptist and Roman Catholic faiths, her experiences at a Thursday morning prayer breakfast on Capitol Hill inspired her to publish the book, “God is in the House: Congressional Testimonies of Faith.” She doesn’t drink and rarely attends Washington cocktail parties.
But she is not averse to confrontations that sometimes grab headlines.
In 2009, she asserted on the House floor during a debate about hate crimes legislation that it was a “hoax” that Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard had been murdered because he was gay — and then called his mother to apologize after learning she was wrong. Then, in 2012, during a reelection campaign stop in North Carolina, she hit back after Obama alluded to a radio interview in which Foxx had said she had “little tolerance” for students who take out debt loads of $80,000 or $200,000 “because there’s no reason for that.”
“Can you imagine saying something like that?” Obama said. “Those of you who have had to take out student loans, you didn’t do it because you’re lazy. You didn’t do it lightly. You don’t like debt.”
Foxx told Fox News the president was trying to deflect attention from his “failed policies,” instead of working together to tackle rising college costs. “We’re not going to solve this problem with the president simply casting stones,” she said.
Foxx would continue to be a regular opponent of many Obama education policies, although she did vote in favor of the Every Student Succeeds Act signed by Obama — the law governing K-12 policy that replaced George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind.
Still, Foxx is well-liked even by many who disagree with her. Long-time former Democratic House Education Chairman George Miller, a liberal from California, called her “a hoot” and said she uses humor and simple language to describe complicated issues and connect with all sides.
“She believes every person can,” Miller said. “It’s not at all malicious intent.”
Shaped by her origins
The key to Foxx’s view of the world comes from this plot of ground in the Blue Ridge Mountains, now dotted with vacation resorts and decidedly Trump country.
Foxx remembers a time when community members like her father went “into the wilds” to gather bushes and trees to sell in New York to make ends meet. Her district is more prosperous now because of tourism, but it’s still deeply conservative with an occasional Confederate flag flying in the wind.
As she walked down the main street of West Jefferson, North Carolina, one recent day and got ready to line up for the annual Christmas parade, she greeted by name many people who cheerfully congratulated her — and the president-elect — on Election Day wins. Foxx laughed and quipped: “Is the Pope Catholic?” when a group of teenage girls costumed for the parade in black robes and halos asked whether she would pose with them for a picture to show to their Advanced Placement political science class.
Foxx’s outfit that day was a red turtleneck and pants — clothes, she acknowledged, when asked, that cost $2 from a thrift store. She also wore her signature X-shaped earrings — a play on the double “X” in her last name.
Her property near Grandfather Mountain reflects just how far she and her husband of more than 50 years, Tom, have come. Their olive-green house towers from the top of a hillside. Near the base of the driveway is a shack constructed around an abandoned school where her husband had lived in high school. The family’s nursery and landscaping business, which used to include tens of thousands of Christmas trees, is on the same street.
Working multiple jobs, it took Foxx seven years to get her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina. She spent two more years living apart much of the time from her husband and then-4-year-old daughter to earn her master’s degree, and another seven to earn her doctorate — a period in which she lost sight in her right eye. She later taught and worked at Appalachian State University before serving as president of Mayland Community College, part of the North Carolina system.
“I’m not complaining and I’m not bragging,” Foxx said. “People can overcome obstacles in this country. I’m just so convinced of it, and my own experience tells me that.”
She is notoriously hardworking to this day. She answers constituents’ letters herself well past midnight from her congressional office, and walks so fast that 20-something aides can barely keep up with her.
Even as she’s skeptical of federal programs, she acknowledges she has benefited from them. Her father went to cosmetology school after World War II using the GI Bill. During part of her career, she worked in a federally funded Upward Bound program at Appalachian State from which, she said, she saw students benefit.
“I know there are some programs that have worked in the past, but the cost I’m not convinced is … always as effective as it can be,” she said.
Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), another member of the Education and Workforce Committee, said few lawmakers command as much respect instantly as Foxx.
“She reminds you of the toughest teacher you had,” Messer said. “When she taps the chalkboard and says time to listen, everybody stops.”
Foxx said her job ahead is to ensure that the new administration isn’t “co-opted by the bureaucracy.”
“People come in with lots of good intentions, and then they start defending the bureaucracy … and that’s the problem,” she said. “We need people who’ve got strong backbones, and very strong convictions.”
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