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Trump On Education Department: 'Reverse This Federal Power Grab'

President Trump ordered Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to look into whether the federal government has usurped state and local control of education.

As we head into the 100th day of the Trump presidency, NPR Ed has our regular weekly education roundup to keep you in the loop.

Attorneys General speak out on behalf of student borrowers

Twenty state attorneys general and the District of Columbia this week sent a letter criticizing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for revoking federal protections for student borrowers.

As we reported earlier this month, DeVos revoked three Obama-era memos governing new contracts for student-loan-servicing companies that collect payments for the Education Department.

The state officials said the memos provided necessary guidance to help borrowers get accurate information about their loans and repayment options and to increase accountability for the servicers.

The memos had also called for targeted outreach to those at greatest risk of default.

"My Student Loan Assistance Unit works everyday with student borrowers who are struggling to repay their loans," Massachusetts AG Maury Healey wrote. "With loan defaults on the rise, this rollback of student protections comes at the worst possible time. We are urging the Secretary to change course immediately."

A coalition of labor and community groups weighed in, calling on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help "clean up the mess" it said was left by DeVos in scaling back the borrower protections.

When DeVos withdrew the memos she said the loan servicing contract process had been plagued by, "moving deadlines, changing requirements and a lack of consistent objectives."

DeVos' office did not return requests for comment on the protest letter.

Student loan servicer tops complaints list

Speaking of student loan servicing, guess what financial services company drew the most consumer complaints of any in the country in the last three months? Not a bank. Not a credit reporting agency. It's Navient, the largest student loan servicer. That's according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this week. The federal agency is currently suing Navient for what it says are patterns of misinforming borrowers and delaying services in ways that cost them money. Navient's leadership has responded that the company feels it is being unfairly "singled out."

The executive order

President Trump this week ordered Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to look into whether the federal government has usurped state and local control of education.

The executive order, which gives DeVos' office 10 months to conduct a review of laws and procedures, is short on details. The first question from a reporter to a White House official was, "Can you remind me exactly how this executive order would, I guess, change anything?"

It says that DeVos can change or cut any regulations to "ensure strict compliance with statutes that prohibit Federal interference with State and local control over education." This power was already inherent in her office.

But the rhetoric may resonate with many conservatives who've long complained about federal education overreach.

"Previous administrations have wrongly forced states and schools to comply with federal whims and dictates for what our kids are taught," President Trump said at a White House signing ceremony on Wednesday.

Federal spending consistently represents less than 10 percent of K-12 school funding. Critics have often singled out the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the 2009 Race To The Top effort as examples of D.C. overreach.

But as Margaret Spellings, who served as education secretary under President George W. Bush, put it to us earlier this year: "Frankly, in NCLB's case, the federal intervention was oversold. There was a ton of local control in funding and policymaking."

And, as we've reported often, the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, puts even more power in the hands of states.

Low-income students cut off from grant program by a half-inch margin

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week that the Department of Education denied grant applications from at least 40 colleges and universities, totaling $10 million, because of formatting errors.

The grant program, Upward Bound, is over half a century old. It assists tens of thousands of low-income and first-generation students in the transition to college. And it's one of many programs targeted for cuts in the President's budget proposal.

These rejections over the past few weeks came for issues like double-spacing that was too narrow, or use of the wrong font. Members of Congress are reaching out to the Department of Education to ask them to reconsider, and there is a citizen letter-writing campaign as well.

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

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