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Educators, students file lawsuit against Education Department, DeVos

Lawsuit aims to stop Education Secretary from illegally delaying rules meant to protect millions of students who are studying in online programs

Educators and students, backed by the National Education Association and the California Teachers Association, today sued the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos after they moved to illegally delay rules meant to protect students enrolled in online education programs.

The individual plaintiffs, NEA and CTA are represented by the National Student Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit organization that advocates for student rights through litigation. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, challenges the Education Department’s delay of requirements for online universities of their legal obligation to notify students that the programs in which they’re enrolled or plan to enroll in may fail to meet state licensing standards or may face adverse actions from the state or accreditor.

As enrollment in online courses and degree programs has grown exponentially over the last decade, the Department of Education, under DeVos’ mandate, took the shocking step of rescinding protections for students pursuing online degrees — protections students need now more than ever.

“It’s shocking but not at all surprising that the Department of Education would roll back student protections because this latest brazen attack on student rights is consistent with everything we have seen from the Trump administration and Secretary Betsy DeVos,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Without these rules, current and prospective students will remain in the dark. Students will be denied critical information about which programs are right for them and which would be a waste of their time and money.”

One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs is aspiring educator Stephanie Portilla, whose dream is to be an elementary teacher one day. Earlier this year, Portilla enrolled full-time to pursue her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Western Governors University, an online-only university that claims it has students living in all 50 states, U.S. territories and U.S. military bases abroad.

Portilla researched and confirmed through the state of California teacher certification website that her program would meet state standards for teacher certification. However, because of the Department of Education has illegally delayed rules, there is no guarantee or legal obligation for the online university to notify her if the program ceases to meet the standards. Portilla could end up with a degree that gets her no closer to her dream of being a teacher in California

“Betsy DeVos’ latest move that removes students’ protections from predatory online universities is a direct attack on our students and their future. The common-sense disclosures help prospective and enrolled students evaluate the legitimacy of online programs and the institution that offers them. Without them, students like Stephanie Portilla could end up saddled with debt and stuck with a worthless degree they can’t use,” said CTA President Eric Heins.

In December 2016, the Department of Education issued the state authorization rule to protect students who were studying in online, distance or correspondence programs. The rules were scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2018. The rules provided important protections including common sense disclosures to help prospective and enrolled students evaluate the legitimacy of both the online program and the institution that offers it, preventing students from wasting time and money on programs that will not help them further their careers. The disclosures included information about whether the program met the licensing requirements in the student’s state and whether the school was under investigation by the state or accreditor for its online programs.

“Desperately needed as it may be, no law can force Secretary DeVos to care about protecting students. But the law does require a specific process to delay a rule, and Secretary DeVos tried to take an illegal shortcut instead,” said NSLDN President Aaron Ament.

Instead of letting these protections go into place, DeVos delayed for months and then illegally rescinded them. The Education Department is required to conduct what’s called “negotiated rulemaking” before it proposes a rule. The Department of Education had plenty of time to do negotiated rulemaking since it signaled its interest in examining the state authorization rule in January 2017. Industry also raised issues for clarification about the rule to the Department of Education throughout 2017 while the Department was conducting intensive outreach on deregulatory actions. 

The Department of Education waited until the very last minute and then issued a proposal with only 15 days for the public to comment — then it missed its own deadline and failed to delay the rule by July 1, 2018. The Education Department’s delay did not publish in the Federal Register until July 3, 2018.

“The Department of Education’s reasons for delay are flimsy and do not satisfy the high bar it must meet to waive its legal obligation to conduct negotiated rulemaking,” added Ament.

The complaint is available here.

About the National Education Association: The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers. Learn more at and follow on twitter at @NEAmedia.

About the California Teachers Association: The 325,000-member California Teachers Association is affiliated with the 3 million-member National Education Association. Find out more at and follow on twitter at @WeAreCTA.

About the National Student Legal Defense Network: The National Student Legal Defense Network is a non-profit organization that works, through litigation and advocacy, to advance students’ rights to educational opportunity and to ensure that higher education provides a launching point for economic mobility.  Learn more at and follow on twitter at @StudentLegalNet.