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DeVos Rolls Back For-Profit College Regs, Harvard's President To Step Down

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust poses for a portrait on campus in Cambridge, Mass. Faust has announced that she will step down next year.

It's the weekend, and that means our rollup of education news around the country — starting this week with some rollbacks.

Freeze of for-profit college regs

The U.S. Department of Education is rolling back two regulations introduced during the Obama administration and designed to protect students, especially those at for-profit colleges.

In a statement, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said previous rulemaking "missed an opportunity to get it right. The result is a muddled process that's unfair to students and schools, and puts taxpayers on the hook for significant costs."

The first rule, "gainful employment," was announced two summers ago. Colleges and universities were to be evaluated based on how many graduates are able to pay back their loans. The logic being, if too many students end up with low incomes and high debt, the program is not offering good value for money. Programs that consistently failed the test were supposed to lose access to federal student-aid dollars. The Obama administration released the first data set in January, which found one in four courses of study reviewed either failing, or borderline. The vast majority were at for-profit colleges, yet as higher education scholar Robert Kelchen pointed out, a graduate theater program at Harvard also failed.

The second rule, "borrower defense to repayment," was supposed to go into effect on July 1. In part a reaction to the shutdown of large for-profits Corinthian and ITT Tech, it was meant to make it simpler for students at colleges found to be fraudulent to get their loans forgiven.

The regulatory clock will be reset on both rules, a process of hearings, public comment and negotiation that can take months. Some student advocates decried the news, while historically black colleges were among those that supported it.

Quiet rollback on civil rights efforts

According to an internal memo obtained by ProPublica, the Department of Education has loosened the requirements for campus investigations of civil rights violations and complaints related to sexual assault. Advocates fear the move will limit enforcement.

Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, wrote in the memo that the department, in an attempt to "clear case backlogs," will decide the scope of investigations on a "case by case basis" rather than "one size fits all." In particular, it will no longer automatically obtain three years of previous complaints and files to determine the context of a reported violation.

DeVos has also called for staff cuts to the civil rights division.

"At best, this administration believes that civil rights enforcement is superfluous and can be easily cut. At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights," Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the DOJ's civil rights division under President Barack Obama, told ProPublica.

The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

The Office of Civil Rights has 335 open campus sexual assault investigations, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

DeVos addresses charter school leaders

Secretary DeVos came to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools conference this week with a familiar message: "A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children's individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right. It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust."

She praised charter schools, which are free to students, have open admissions, run independently of districts using taxpayer money, and are bound by federal and state accountability. She also praised private schools, which are generally none of the above.

Florida passes controversial education law; Texas to vote on 'bathroom bill' in July

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has signed a large and controversial education bill into law. HB 7069 allocates more money to charter schools: both local tax revenue and federal Title I funding intended for poor students. It also expands a homeschool scholarship program NPR Ed has covered. DeVos has repeatedly cited Florida as a national model for school choice.

In other state news, this summer, Texas will again try to pass a "bathroom bill," which would require transgender people to use the public restrooms that correspond with their biological sex instead of their gender identity. The bill failed during the regular legislative session, but Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has now called for a special session and the bill is back on the agenda.

Harvard University president to step down

Harvard University announced this that its first woman president, Drew Gilpin Faust, will step down next year after 11 years, leaving behind a legacy of change. Faust was appointed in 2007 to succeed Lawrence H. Summers, who departed in a cloud of controversy after claiming that women are innately ill-equipped for math and science.

Faust was hailed for increasing diversity and inclusion efforts among students and faculty. Drawing in part on her background as a historian, she moved to publicly acknowledge Harvard's slaveowning past. She suffered criticism, however, for the poor financial performance of Harvard's endowment.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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