DeVos Loosens For-Profit College Rules; More State Cash May Head To Religious Schools

Jul 1, 2017
Originally published on July 1, 2017 2:00 pm

Hello and welcome to our weekly education news roundup.

DeVos "presses pause" on for-profit college regulation

Two weeks ago, we reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was rolling back the "gainful employment" rule intended to rein in for-profit colleges. On Friday, she took a further step back.

On July 1, colleges were supposed to begin disclosing information about program performance to students in their marketing materials. The schools now have an extra year to comply.

"Once fully implemented, the current rules would unfairly and arbitrarily limit students' ability to pursue certain types of higher education and career training programs," DeVos said in a statement.

As we reported on the details of the rule:

"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 New York Times noted recently that evidence suggests the gainful employment rule had been working as advertised, in that colleges are voluntarily shutting down the programs that provide the worst return on investment.

New voucher report cards for Indiana, Louisiana

This Monday, NPR Ed took an early look at two important new studies of students who use vouchers.

A handful of recent studies had shown student achievement plummeting when kids left public schools for private ones using vouchers.

But these two studies each showed an eventual rebound for students who stayed at the private schools for at least three years in Louisiana and at least four years in Indiana.

Various groups of students ended up a little ahead in English. In Louisiana, students who came to private schools in earlier grades were still behind in math.

Supreme Court case has implications for private school choice

Speaking of vouchers, a toddlers' playground in Columbia, Mo., may have become a historic site in the effort to expand school voucher programs. That is because the Supreme Court ruled this week that Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center could not be excluded from using tax dollars to resurface its play area just because the school has a religious affiliation.

As Nina Totenberg wrote for NPR:

"School choice advocates rejoiced at the decision, seeing it as a vehicle for funneling taxpayer money to private religious schools."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, calling the decision "radical" because it "profoundly changes" the relationship between church and state "by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church."

Tax credit scholarships are not tax money, rules Georgia's Supreme Court

Notwithstanding the ruling from Washington, 38 states have so-called "Blaine Amendments" to their constitutions that specifically prohibit directing public money to private religious schools and thus stand in the way of regular voucher programs. A workaround, though, has emerged in 17 states through a "tax credit scholarship."

Individuals and businesses donate money to a private scholarship fund and receive a tax credit for up to 100 percent of each dollar they give. (In some cases, as we've reported, they can actually make money off the donation). President Trump has praised tax credit scholarship programs in Florida and elsewhere.

Well, the Georgia Supreme Court just ruled that this workaround is legally protected, in the Peach State anyway. Even though Georgia taxpayers reduce their tax bills by a dollar for every dollar they donate, tax credit scholarship donations are not considered public funds because they never touch the treasury. Thus, they don't violate the state's Blaine Amendment, the court held.

Mixed reviews for state Every Student Succeeds Act plans

A total of 17 states have now told the U.S. Department of Education, in detail, how they plan to comply with the federal law that exhorts all students and all schools to keep getting better. More than 30 bipartisan experts have reviews of those state plans posted at CheckStatePlans.org. The plans are being rated on several factors:

  • clarity of goals;
  • quality of indicators, including tests, aligned with those goals;
  • commitment to all groups of students including the traditionally underserved; and
  • proficiency at identifying schools most in need of help.

A newish concept that is coming to bear with this new law is the idea of measuring student growth. Instead of counting the number of students who meet a given standard, growth targets are intended to capture the progress that all students make from year to year.

Perhaps surprisingly, the states with the most highly-thought-of schools don't necessarily have the best-rated improvement plans and vice versa.

New Mexico, for example, earned top marks. The state has set an ambitious goal of getting two-thirds of its students to college, while reducing the number that need remedial classes when they get there. And there are clear remedies for low-performing schools.

Massachusetts, on the other hand, was dinged for a vague, "abstract" and incomplete plan.

The rest of the states are supposed to submit plans in September.

Oregon cuts back on its community college "promise"

Free community college programs have been growing across the nation. Oregon, facing a budget crunch, has introduced new guidelines that restrict families earning more than $100,000 a year from its program. The changes may affect an estimated one in six applicants.

"This will create significant hardships for some students whose college plans were premised on getting this award and who will find out this summer that they don't receive it," a state education official told The Oregonian newspaper.

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