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DeSantis sues Education Department over higher ed accreditation process

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced Thursday he is suing the Department of Education over its accreditation process for colleges and universities, saying it is unfair to schools in his state. 

Florida is accusing the Biden administration of unlawfully interfering with a recent state law that requires universities to switch their accreditor every few years, arguing the department is unjustly burdening the state’s schools’ ability to comply. 

Universities are required to go through an accreditation process to receive federal funds. While accreditation companies are private, the department reviews these firms to see if they are following proper standards to let them keep their status as arbitrators of the funding. 

DeSantis says that after Florida created a law to require universities to switch accreditors every so often, the Department of Education issued three “guidance documents” making it virtually impossible for schools to follow the state’s directive. 

“I will not allow Joe Biden’s Department of Education to defund America’s #1 higher education system all because we refuse to bow to unaccountable accreditors who think they should run Florida’s public universities,” said the governor, who is also a 2024 presidential candidate, in a statement.

In the complaint, the state of Florida lays out ways the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS), the accreditor that works with all Florida schools, has allegedly abused its power. 

The most recent incident listed in the lawsuit was in 2021, when SACS said Florida State University was in danger of losing federal aid because it was considering the Florida commissioner of education to be its president. 

“In 2022, the Florida Legislature, prompted by the Department’s actions and incensed by SACS’s abuses, passed SB 7044, which requires public colleges and universities to switch accreditors,” the lawsuit reads. 

In response, the department released documents to the accreditors detailing that schools needed a “reasonable cause” to be able to switch accreditation agencies. Another document said the agencies need to remember the voluntary nature of the relationship between the private companies and schools and to investigate if they feel a requested switch is against the wish of a university. 

The last document, according to the lawsuit, updated guidance that says universities must get approval from the department before they begin the process to switch accreditors. 

While some Florida universities have formally requested permission to change accreditors from the department, the lawsuit says the administration has responded by saying they need to know if the school is only switching because of Florida’s new law to determine if they have a “reasonable cause” to change accreditors. 

“As it stands, state law requires over half of Florida’s public colleges and universities to change accreditors in the next two years. Their ability to do so is substantially burdened, if not entirely prevented, by federal laws that violate the Constitution and federal policies that violate the APA,” the lawsuit reads. 

The lawsuit asserts the federal government is violating the private nondelegation doctrine, the 10th Amendment and Spending Clause, the Appointments Clause and the Administration Procedure Act. 

“The Biden administration’s attempts to block these reforms is an abuse of federal power, and with this lawsuit, we will ensure that Florida’s pursuit of educational excellence will continue,” DeSantis said. 

A White House spokesperson compared this lawsuit to other “culture war” issues DeSantis has focused on such as book bans.

“If Republican elected officials could have their way, library shelves would be stocked with guns – not books – and curriculums would be loaded with conspiracy theories, not facts. These culture wars do nothing to actually help students, and only make things worse. This Administration won’t allow it. We’re committed to ensuring all students receive a high-quality education, and will fight this latest effort by opponents to get in the way of that,” the spokesperson said. 

The lawsuit is the latest move in DeSantis’s crusade on education, which he has made a top pillar in his time as Florida governor and in his presidential campaign. He has in particular stirred up the higher education space by signing laws that make it more difficult for faculty to retain tenure, restricting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and replacing the board of a small liberal arts college with conservative members.

Updated at 5:09 pm.

Source: The Hill

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