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Congress Erases K-12 Rules, A Financial Aid Foul-Up And Other Education News

The case of transgender high school student Gavin Grimm, seen here last year, has been sent back to a lower court by the Supreme Court.
Steve Helber
The case of transgender high school student Gavin Grimm, seen here last year, has been sent back to a lower court by the Supreme Court.

Once again, it was another big week for national education news. Here's our quick take on the top stories.

Senate scraps federal regulations

On Thursday, the Senate voted to roll back Obama-era rules that clarified and elaborated on a wide range of accountability requirements in the federal education law known as The Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote was narrow, 50 to 49. To be clear, Congress is not scrapping or even changing the law itself. When it comes to school accountability, ESSA still requires that states flag schools where groups of students are "consistently underperforming." And it requires that the measurement of school performance include not just test scores and graduation rates but also some other indicator of school quality, including absenteeism or access to AP courses.

After ESSA became law, the Obama administration was tasked with writing rules to clarify key sections. What the Senate voted to do this week was to scrap the previous Education Department's interpretation of the law's accountability requirements, not the requirements themselves.

If that's not clear enough, here's a handy, point-by-point comparison of the law and that interpretation by Education Week's Alyson Klein.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is himself a former Education Secretary, hailed the change. He called the vote "a victory for everyone who was fed up with Washington telling them so much about what to do about their children in 100,000 public schools, and I look forward to President Trump's signature of this resolution."

The Education Trust, an advocacy group where John B. King Jr., the most recent education secretary under President Obama, is now president and CEO, called the rollback "misguided." "This resolution will cause unnecessary confusion," the group said in a statement, "disrupting the work in states and wasting time that students — particularly those who are most vulnerable — cannot afford for us to waste."

New Executive Order on Immigration

President Donald Trump signed a new executive order on Monday, a new version of his initial ban against the arrivals from seven majority-Muslim countries. This time, Iraq was not included because of its promises to "increase cooperation with the U.S." and share citizens' information.

NPR's Eric Westervelt spoke with Esther Brimmer, executive director of the Association of International Educators, about how policies like the travel ban — and recent violent events against immigrants — could have a lasting effect on higher education if international student enrollment numbers drop.

The revised ban is scheduled to go into effect on March 16.

Another online resource for students goes dark

First, the website that provides help to families of students with disabilities went down last month with little explanation. Now, it's the IRS' Data Retrieval Tool. If those words, "Data Retrieval Tool," put you to sleep, it means you're not a high school senior rushing to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

The FAFSA is the form — famously complicated and difficult to finish — that stands between many low-income high-schoolers and the federal Pell Grant that will help them pay for college.

In the past, many students weren't finishing the FAFSA because it required them to manually enter their parents' tax data. That was a big hurdle for at-risk students. But there was a clear fix, and in late 2015, the Obama administration agreed to the fix, allowing most applicants to use this IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically answer some of the FAFSA's toughest questions.

Yet students who have tried to use the IRS tool in recent days have, instead, been told: "This service will be unavailable due to system maintenance. We apologize for any inconvenience."

According to a joint statement released Thursday by the IRS and the Department of Education:

"As part of a wider, ongoing effort at the IRS to protect the security of data, the IRS decided to temporarily suspend the Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) as a precautionary step following concerns that information from the tool could potentially be misused by identity thieves."

And it won't be back soon: "The IRS anticipates the online data tool will be unavailable for several weeks."

That's a problem because now is primetime for FAFSA filers, with many states' financial-aid deadlines fast approaching. In short: Students are in for "a rude awakening," says the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or NASFAA.

Until the problem is resolved, NASFAA's president and CEO, Justin Draeger, called on the Education Department "to take immediate steps to ease application and verification burdens that will fall squarely on students, potentially delaying or complicating their application process, not to mention increasing work on college campuses that could lead to delays and backlogs."

School districts close for #DayWithoutAWoman

On Wednesday, at least three school districts closed because of a national protest aimed at calling attention to the inequities women face in the workforce, such as unequal pay and harassment. Women make up 76 percent of the public school teacher workforce.

Among the schools that shut down were: the 12,000-student Chapel Hill-Carrboro district in North Carolina, which announced an "optional teacher workday." About 300 staff members requested the day off in the Alexandria schools in Virginia. And an estimated 1,700 staff members, including transportation staff, did the same in Maryland's Prince George's County.

Officials in the three districts said the number of staff who requested the day off left them unable to operate safely and effectively. The last-minute cancellations caused some irritation among families scrambling to find child care.

Transgender bathroom case back to lower court

On Monday, the Supreme Court sidestepped the controversial question of whether transgender students should be allowed to use the school bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

The case was brought by Gavin Grimm, 17, a transgender senior at Gloucester High School in eastern Virginia. He had been using the boys' restroom but, after parents complained, the school board required that he use a private, unisex bathroom instead. As we wrote earlier:

"Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in Grimm's favor, citing the Obama administration's guidance on Title IX that has now been rescinded."

That Obama-era guidance specified that Title IX's protections against sexual discrimination should be read to include a student's gender identity. But the Trump administration recently rescinded those guidelines, giving states and school districts more flexibility in interpreting the law.

Because the 4th Circuit's decision was based on old guidance, the Supreme Court chose the path of least resistance, asking the lower court to give Grimm a new hearing taking into account the new, Trump-era guidance.

177 private colleges fail federal financial-responsibility test

The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed data from the Education Department and found that 177 private colleges failed the department's test for financial responsibility — 18 more than the previous year. The data was taken from the 2014-15 school year. Of the total, 112 were non-profit and 65 were for-profit.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.