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Sen. Warren Launches 'DeVos Watch'; Principal Fired For Nazi Insignia

Lorenzo Gritti for NPR

Welcome to another edition of NPR Ed's Weekly Roundup!

Warren announces 'DeVos Watch'

Since before her entry into politics, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been a fervent advocate of consumer protection, particularly when it comes to financial matters, like student loans. In an op-ed and a video this week, she introduced 'DeVos Watch,' to intensify oversight of what she called the U.S. Secretary of Education's "steps that undermine protections for students and taxpayers."

What are these alleged steps?

Most of the actions that the Education Department has taken so far with respect to student loans are pretty tough to unpack in simple terms. Betsy DeVos hired two advisers from the for-profit college industry, one of whom resigned after Warren sent a pointed letter asking about conflicts of interest. The secretary delayed enforcement of an Obama-era rule called "gainful employment" that was meant to rein in for-profits. And she's signaled a rollback in oversight of the servicers that collect student loans. Finally, the head of the office of Federal Student Aid suddenly resigned last week, citing "the risk associated with the current environment in the department."

As part of her project, Warren is asking for "whistleblower tips" about DeVos from the general public.

In other DeVos news, a story in The New York Times pointed out that some of her appointees are more diverse than one might assume. And the secretary raised eyebrows by issuing a public statement in praise of President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

Online upgrades for special education and income-based repayment

The federal hub for resources on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was revampedand relaunched this week. There was an outcry when the site went down briefly in February, close to the time of DeVos' confirmation.

And, the IRS data retrieval tool is now back up and working for those applying for income-based repayment of their student loans. This online tool experienced a "major" security breach and was taken downin the middle of college application season, potentially bogging down applications for federal student aid. The department says the tool will be back up for college applicants this October.

Education journalists meet, without the Education Secretary

The 70th annual National Seminar of the Education Writers Association took place this week, the largest single gathering of journalists on the education beat. The association's top award for the year went to Brian Rosenthal, whose series in the Houston Chronicle investigated how state education officials devised a system to limit access to special education. NPR Ed ran a follow-up this week, on the impact to English Language Learners.

Every previous education secretary has addressed the group; DeVos begged off due to a scheduling conflict.

Slate, Columbia University investigate online high school courses

Slate magazine just wrapped upan eight-part series on how online courses are impacting high school graduation rates, concluding:

"The view from the ground suggests that many online credit recovery courses are subpar substitutes for traditional classroom instruction."

A team of reporters found dramatic increases in graduation rates in districts that "relied on virtual learning as a crutch to lets kids retake—and sometimes retake and retake—core subjects that they failed the first time around."

New Orleans principal loses his job after being filmed with Nazi insignia

Nicholas Dean, principal of the Crescent Leadership Academy, an alternative charter high school in New Orleans, was fired after a video surfaced of him wearing Nazi and white nationalist insignia. Dean was spotted at a protest against the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans.

Initially, he told the The Times-Picayune that, "I went because I am a historian." Later, after his dismissal, he had no comment.

NPR Ed interviewedDean as part of a story about Crescent Leadership Academy back in 2015. He is an Air Force veteran who was then in his first year as principal at the school, which accepts students who have had trouble at other schools or with the law. The students are overwhelmingly African-American.

Free college — for a few

The city of Boston announced a new free college tuition program for low-income students, called The Boston Bridge. High school seniors graduating this spring are eligible. They must first apply for federal Pell Grants and enroll full time at one of three area community colleges, with intent to transfer and stay on track to graduate in four years. The city and state will cover tuition and fees over and above the Pell Grant, but not living expenses.

Boston already has a Tuition Free Community College initiative and Massachusetts has a Commonwealth Commitment, with a GPA requirement, both launched last year. These have just a few dozen students each.

Copyright 2017 KUER 90.1

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.