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Loan Forgiveness Denial; Puerto Rico Schools After Maria; DeVos Calls For Free-Speech

Chelsea Beck

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

Student loan forgiveness applicants largely denied

New data out this week from the U.S. Department of Education offer the first glimpse of how student borrowers are navigating the popular Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. And it's not pretty. As of this summer, nearly 29,000 applications for PSLF had been submitted and processed. Of those, 289 were approved. That's a 99 percent denial rate.

The findings don't tell us much about why so many borrowers were denied, only that a third were turned away for missing information, presumably problems with their paperwork. Some, perhaps many, of these borrowers will eventually be approved.

But the other two-thirds were denied for "not meeting program requirements." Many of these student borrowers are actually public servants — police officers, firefighters, school teachers. But the problem is, according to a report last year from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, they're not meeting the program requirements because they've been given insufficient or even bad advice by their loan servicer. These are the big companies that the federal government pays to manage the paperwork and phone calls that come in from its tens of millions of student borrowers.

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

Enrollment in Puerto Rico continues to fall in Maria's aftermath

Student enrollment in Puerto Rico had been declining long before Hurricane Maria struck one year ago this week, and since then, things have only gotten worse for students, teachers and parents, NPR's Adrian Florido reported this week. The island's education department says that, between May of last year and the start of this school year, the system saw a 10 percent drop in enrollment. That's roughly 38,000 students. Thousands of Puerto Ricans poured into Florida and New York after the storm.

The government has already closed about 260 of the island's schools. This is forcing some rural families to travel even farther to get to school.

The disruption comes as the schools there were already struggling to raise student achievement. Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico's education secretary, told Education Week that there wasn't a single eighth-grader who demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for the 2017-2018 school year. Shuttering schools especially hurt special-needs students, who require specific classrooms and specially qualified teachers, the Miami Herald reported. (The newspaper also interviewed the education secretary, students and parents in Spanish here.)

Trump plans to cut Head Start funding to pay for detention of immigrant children

The Department of Health and Human Services plans to shift $16.7 million away from Head Start, in addition to other programs, to fund detention facilities for immigrant children, according to a report in Yahoo News. Head Start provides early childhood education programs for low-income families.

College campuses are smothering free speech, DeVos says

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a speech in Philadelphia on Monday in honor of Constitution Day. She called for more free and open speech on college campuses. And, she urged administrators not to allow protesters to use the "heckler's veto" to silence speakers.

New research: High school teachers are handing out too many As

It's getting easier to earn an A in high school, and that's especially true for affluent students.

Teachers are more likely to inflate grades at schools in well-off neighborhoods than those attended by low-income students. That's all according to a study published Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank and advocacy group.

The report, by Seth Gershenson, an associate professor at American University, says college admissions officers should take grade inflation at wealthier schools into account when considering applications.

New report: Increased school spending improves California high school graduation rates

Funding for schools in California has improved since the Great Recession, but it still isn't enough to meet state goals, according to a report released Monday by Stanford University and the research group Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).

More than 100 researchers spent two years writing a comprehensive update on education issues in the Golden State. They say learning rates of the California students in grades 3-8 are the same or slightly better than other students nationwide. The state's low-income students, however, lag behind their national counterparts, the report says, largely because those children arrive for kindergarten less prepared than more affluent kids.

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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.
Courtney Rozen