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Court Ruling Changes Course For Teachers Unions; Calif. Sues Student Loan Collector

Plaintiff Mark Janus stands outside the Supreme Court after the court rules in a setback for organized labor that states can't force government workers to pay union fees.

You're reading NPR's weekly roundup of education news.

Supreme Court deals blow to unions

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that public sector unions can no longer collect mandatory fees from nonmembers. The 5-4 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME will affect government workers including teachers, and it could have a major impact on the future of teachers unions.

In 22 states, public sector workers who don't belong to their unions must still pay mandatory union fees, which support collective bargaining. But some nonmembers disagree with union politics. And while technically unions have been forbidden from using these fees to pay for political activity, the court ruled that the fees still violate the First Amendment rights of these nonmembers.

Justice Samuel Alito said in the majority opinion that concerns about free speech rights take precedence over concerns about free-riders (the nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining without paying union dues).

Researchers predict that teachers unions will lose members and money without the ability to collect these fees. They also say that Wednesday's ruling could pave the way for more grass-roots organizing among teachers and other educators. Teachers in multiple states held walkouts and protests this spring to press for more school funding and/or higher pay. They did so both with and without union support.

California sues major loan servicer

The state of California is suing Navient, a major student loan servicing company, for "misconduct in the servicing and collection of federal student loans."

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the lawsuit at a press conference Thursday, where he said that Navient misled borrowers on repayment options and collection fees and gave inaccurate information to borrowers who have become disabled. The suit was filed on Friday.

"Where the federal government has dropped the ball on protecting our hardworking students, California will pick it up," Becerra said Thursday.

Earlier this year, the Education Department, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, issued new guidance that student loan debt collectors like Navient don't have to answer to state regulators. They need only comply with federal regulations, which are, in some cases, more lax.

Navient collects student loan payments on behalf of lenders, and it's one of the largest such companies in the U.S., servicing loans for some 12 million borrowers.

In a statement, Navient's president and CEO Jack Remondi said California's lawsuit "is another attempt to blame a single servicer for the failures of the higher education system and the federal student loan program to deliver desired outcomes."

In 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also sued the company for mismanaging loan payments and guiding borrowers toward more costly plans. That case is ongoing.

Justice Kennedy leaves record of education decisions — and questions about the future

Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, leaving room for a new appointment and raising questions about future rulings, including those around education.

In 2010's Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, Kennedy voted in line with the liberal majority in a case over free speech on campuses. The court ruled that a public law school did not violate the First Amendment when it denied official recognition to a student group that did not allow all students to join.

Kennedy also wrote majority opinion in 2016's Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which ruled that colleges have the right to use race as a factor in admissions.

The legal questions around affirmative action seemed settled by the court, but Kennedy's retirement could change that.

The same activist who supported the suit against the University of Texas now leads Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard University over that school's admissions practices. Students for Fair Admissions alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

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