Backs To Betsy DeVos; Scholarships Denied; Paul Ryan Visits A Charter School

May 13, 2017

Hello and welcome to another edition of NPR Ed's weekly national education news roundup!

DeVos heckled at Bethune-Cookman University

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' first commencement address since taking office was interrupted by persistent boos when she addressed graduates at a private, Christian, historically black university in Florida. About half the graduates turned their backs on the secretary in protest. At one point the school's president, Edison O. Jackson, warned students he'd mail them their diplomas if the jeering continued. That led to only a brief pause.

DeVos has made missteps when it comes to historically black colleges, as we reported:

"Earlier this year, DeVos called HBCUs 'real pioneers when it comes to school choice,' a remark she was forced to walk back after protests; in fact, these colleges were founded as the only option for students when other colleges were still legally segregated. Just this week, DeVos found herself clarifying comments by President Trump that seemed to suggest that a key form of funding for HBCUs might be unconstitutional."

The protests also included a large petition drive, open letters and calls on President Jackson to resign. Some of the loudest jeers during the speech came when DeVos said she'd be visiting the gravesite of the university's founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, a daughter of former slaves and a civil rights leader. "It's a complete insult," alumna Trinice McNally told NPR Ed. "There is no comparison to my founder."

Paul Ryan visits a charter school

House Speaker Paul Ryan also faced protesters this week when visiting a charter school in Harlem for National Teacher Appreciation Day. The school is part of a charter network, Success Academy, in New York City known for its high test scores and high-profile leader, Eva Moskowitz. She was once rumored to be under consideration for President Trump's education secretary. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, also met briefly with a special education class in a public school that shares the building, Newsday reported.

A few dozen protesters, including one wearing a Trump costume per this video, greeted Ryan. Their chants primarily referred to the Affordable Care Act repeal that passed the House last week. The Medicaid cuts in that bill would directly affect services for special education students.

State education plans ready for review

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have submitted complete state education plans, the Education Department announced. You can see the list here. The plans outline how states will comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, including establishing student growth targets, helping underperforming schools and consulting with stakeholders to finalize plans. The plans are headed for peer review; there is a second deadline for more states to submit in September.

Update on low-income students denied grants for formatting errors

As we covered a few weeks ago, the Department of Education in March denied grant applications from dozens of colleges and universities, totaling $10 million, because of small formatting errors like neglecting to double-space. The money, from a federal program called Upward Bound, helps low-income students prepare for college.

In a memo released this week, Secretary DeVos declared that going forward, page limits and formatting standards could no longer be used to reject such applications. However, the Associated Press reported that the rejected applications will not be revisited. It's five years until the next round, meaning some of these programs may have to shut down in the interim.

A tax tool to make college aid applications easier is down until the fall

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool won't be usable until October, an Education Department official has testified.

The tool was designed to allow college aid applicants filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to add their family tax information with the push of a button. It was taken down because of security concerns just prior to many state deadlines, in March.

Accurate info is crucial for determining how much college help students qualify for. Without it, applicants have to fill in their tax return data manually, which takes longer and is prone to error.

At the beginning of this month, most first-time applicants to traditional colleges had to lock down their decisions, including FAFSA applications. Returning students and those at colleges with rolling admissions may still be filling out the form. On Oct. 1, it becomes available for the 2018-2019 school year, hopefully with the Data Retrieval Tool restored.

DeVos won't speak at education writers' conference

Betsy DeVos will not be addressing the upcoming three-day national meeting of the Education Writers Association, as is traditional for education secretaries. The largest annual gathering of journalists who cover education takes place in Washington, D.C., at the end of this month. A spokesman for DeVos told NPR Ed, "unfortunately, her schedule is full and she's unavailable this year."

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