SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge said Thursday she will order Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to stop delaying a rule that requires online and distance-learning schools to warn students about the quality of their programs.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said the Trump administration used an unlawful process to delay the Obama-era regulation, which was finalized in December 2016 and set to take effect July 1, 2018.
Attorneys for two teacher unions and three teachers pursuing higher education celebrated the ruling as a victory for educators, aspiring teachers and all students enrolled in online or distance-learning programs.
"Students were left in the dark when the department delayed this rule," said Laura Juran, a lawyer with the California Teachers Association.
The rule will require schools to inform students if their programs meet state licensing requirements and if they were sanctioned by a state or accrediting agency.
Failing to disclose that information could lead students to take on significant debt for an education deemed "worthless" by employers, said attorney Martha Fulford with the National Student Legal Defense Network.
The U.S. Department of Education said it decided to delay the rule after receiving two letters from higher education interest groups in February 2017 complaining of "widespread concern and confusion" about the new requirements. Two days after the rule was meant to take effect, the department announced it needed a two-year delay to reconsider the regulation.
On Thursday, Beeler said the department failed to use a required "negotiated rulemaking process," which includes preparing draft regulations and meeting with interested parties, before delaying the rule.
Justice Department lawyer Stuart Robinson insisted the failure to follow that process was a "harmless error." He said the department still sought public comments on its proposal, and that using a negotiated rulemaking process would have made no difference on the outcome.
Beeler rejected that reasoning, noting the department gave interested parties and the public only 15 days to comment on its proposal.
"I don't think that's the equivalent to the negotiated rulemaking process," Beeler said. "It's a totally different process with different possibilities."
Robinson asked Beeler to postpone making the Education Department enforce the rule. He said it would need extra time to put out guidance on how schools must comply with the regulation.
Fulford countered that schools have had 17 months to prepare for compliance. She argued that the rule should take effect within 30 days.
Beeler said she would issue a written ruling soon with her decision on the timing.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union and one that represents teachers, is lead plaintiff in the case. Other plaintiffs include the California Teachers Association and three individual educators pursuing degrees at online schools.
Beeler previously rejected the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of standing in December 2018. The U.S. Education Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Thursday.
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