The Supreme Court curbed federal oversight of schools. It's a big deal.

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The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., May 20, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., May 20, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo

Andrew Davis wanted protection after other students carved homophobic slurs into the door of his college dorm room.

Sydney Greenway hoped to avoid spending a week's grocery money on another textbook.

Tashiana Bryant-Myrick sought relief from the student debt hobbling her family's future.

For years, the U.S. Department of Education has been able to intervene to some degree in these scenarios. But a Supreme Court decision handed down just over a week ago reined in the agency's power to help everyday people. The news came as important deadlines loom for schools to implement key regulations, many of which now stand on shakier legal ground.

Three current and five former Education Department staffers, some of whom were not authorized to speak publicly, told USA TODAY they were dismayed by the ruling, which they fear will blunt the agency’s ability to oversee the American education system.

“I’m really, really nervous about what this means,” said Amy Laitinen, a former senior policy adviser on higher education in the Education Department and the White House. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that it will be bad for students and taxpayers.”

Education policy in the United States is primarily hammered out by state and local governments. When it comes to taking federal action – including to keep LGBTQ+ students safe, textbook costs down and student loan debt under control – Congress is generally slow to pass new regulations. (The main federal law overseeing colleges hasn’t been comprehensively reauthorized since 2008.)

Helping students often falls to the bottom of lawmakers' to-do lists. In that vacuum, the Education Department's role overseeing schools, especially colleges, has only expanded.

The department handles nearly $2 trillion in federal student loan debt and protects students and teachers from discrimination, including the antisemitism and Islamophobia that roiled campuses this year amid the Israel-Hamas war. During the Obama and Biden administrations, the agency has demonstrated a greater willingness to clamp down on predatory colleges. When it screws something up – such as delivering college financial aid, which devolved into a crisis this year – the ripple effects can be devastating.

All of that authority may now be jeopardized by the ruling in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo. On June 28, the high court’s conservative justices rejected a 40-year-old precedent known as "Chevron deference,” a standard set by the 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which gave federal agencies latitude to clarify ambiguous laws passed by Congress.

Read more about the Loper decision: Supreme Court curbs power of federal regulators, overturning 40-year precedent

On the heels of a different verdict that could preclude those same agencies from imposing fines, the justices dramatically recast the balance of government power away from the executive branch. Officials immediately began panicking that the Education Department might lose some of its capacity to address real-life problems through regulation.

Even before the decree was handed down, lower court judges in several states over the past few weeks were separately halting key Education Department policies, including rules affecting student loan borrowers, LGBTQ+ students and sexual assault survivors.

The National Education Association, the largest union for educators, warned that students nationwide would “pay the price” for the demise of Chevron deference. Meanwhile, conservatives and for-profit schools have rejoiced at the ruling, which they consider a long-overdue blow to big government.

“No agency has overreached more in exceeding congressional authority than the current U.S. Department of Education,” said Jason Altmire, the president of the group Career Education Colleges and Universities, which represents the interests of for-profit colleges.

Supporters of the verdict, including Republicans in Congress, argued federal regulators have become too powerful. They praised the Supreme Court for transferring more authority to the judicial branch to interpret vague laws.

The Education Department declined to comment directly but cited a statement from Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, who scolded the Supreme Court for “yet another deeply troubling decision that takes our country backwards.”

How the ruling will affect schools will depend largely on how judges handle forthcoming legal challenges. If the federal judiciary’s recent decisions are a harbinger of what's to come, the Biden administration’s agenda for American schools could be in serious trouble.

Vanessa Miller, an assistant professor of education law at Indiana University Bloomington, said that although federal regulations have long been vulnerable to litigation, the Supreme Court just made them even weaker.

“We don’t really know how it’s going to unfold,” she said. “That’s the complicated and scary part.”

Protections for LGBTQ+ students threatened

College brought Andrew Davis a sense of stability he had never experienced before.

When he arrived in the fall of 2020 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, about three hours from his rural hometown, it was one of the first times in his life he had consistent food and housing. With a generous financial aid package in hand, he knew he’d be relying on the school a lot.

Andrew Davis, a queer and nonbinary student pursuing a master's degree at Brown University, has been advocating for Title IX reform since he says he was harassed by his peers at an Ohio college several years ago.
Andrew Davis, a queer and nonbinary student pursuing a master's degree at Brown University, has been advocating for Title IX reform since he says he was harassed by his peers at an Ohio college several years ago.

By October of that year, that stability began to crumble. Other students started harassing Davis, who identifies as queer and nonbinary. A lot of the behavior took place outside his dorm room, where he said they would carve slurs into the door and dump their trash. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he could hear speakers blasting anti-queer insults.

“I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” said Davis, now 22.

He filed a complaint against his peers under Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits sex-based discrimination on school campuses. The law was reinterpreted during the Trump administration in a way critics said bolstered the rights of people accused of sexual assault and harassment. Under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department raised the burden of proof for victims.

Davis’ case didn’t meet evidence standards and was dismissed, he said. He watched hopefully as the Biden administration set out to reverse those Trump-era rules while pushing to codify protections that would prevent discrimination against LGBTQ+ students like him.

In April, the Education Department finalized part of its long-awaited rewrite of Title IX, quelling the anxiety of victim advocates who had grown restless after waiting years for change. The new guidance would officially expand the statute to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its definition of sex-based discrimination.

The revised rules are supposed to take effect nationwide on Aug. 1, but lawsuits brought by Republican attorneys general in multiple states have placed them in a holding pattern in many parts of the country. A federal judge in Kansas, for instance, issued yet another preliminary injunction this month blocking implementation of the revised Title IX rules in four states. The ban applied to all the schools attended by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, too.

Shiwali Patel, a former attorney in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, now with the National Women’s Law Center, found the broad scope of that ruling troublesome.

“Opponents of civil rights and Title IX have really stopped at nothing,” she said.

Student debt relief in jeopardy

Tashiana Bryant-Myrick, a 36-year-old California mom, was the first in her family to attend college. She now works in higher education, advising young people from marginalized groups.

But her decision to work in academia came with a hefty price tag – she owes tens of thousands of dollars on her student loans.

“We can’t build generational wealth as a young Black family and try to plan for our future with our child,” she said, “because we really don’t know what is going to happen.”

She hoped student loan forgiveness would make her life easier, but she is uncertain about whether the Education Department's efforts will ultimately help her.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has made student debt relief the centerpiece of his education policy agenda, forgiving roughly $170 billion for nearly 5 million Americans. In his State of the Union address this year, he credited himself with having “fixed” two major student loan repayment programs.

Those aggressive, controversial and wildly expensive actions have made a sizable difference in many lives, especially for older borrowers who felt stuck after paying back loans for years.

It wasn't long before the debt cancellation butted up against an unfriendly court system. The Supreme Court last summer struck down Biden’s most ambitious plan to provide $400 billion in debt relief to tens of millions of Americans. The now-defunct program would have canceled up to $20,000 in student loans for a broad swath of the population.

"This fight is not over," Biden vowed in a White House news conference following the June 2023 decision.

Since those roadblocks, the administration has pursued different avenues for student debt relief. Most of them, however, rely to some extent on the deference historically given to federal agencies like the Education Department to implement laws passed by Congress.

“At the end of the day, none of this is good for students,” said Daniel Zibel, vice president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, a group that advocates for borrowers.

Numerous legal challenges have set in motion a game of regulatory pingpong that paused – and then resumed – one of Biden’s signature student loan initiatives, which calculates payments based on borrowers' incomes. Miguel Cardona, Biden’s education secretary, has routinely referred to that program as the “most affordable repayment plan ever.”

Education Secretary Miguel Caronda testifies before congressional lawmakers in April.
Education Secretary Miguel Caronda testifies before congressional lawmakers in April.

Recent preliminary injunctions on the program issued by federal judges in Kansas and Missouri forced the Education Department to place about 3 million borrowers in forbearance, temporarily halting their bills. A three-judge panel has since granted the Biden administration’s request to stay one of those bans. Three states asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to take up the plan's legality.

The volatile nature of the litigation doesn't bode well for Biden's student debt relief agenda surviving the courts in the long run.

Biden administration ramps up college oversight

When Sydney Greenway was starting her second semester at Wayne State University in Detroit, she noticed a $50 charge on her account. Greenway, now 21, didn’t remember paying $50 for a textbook.

She soon learned that her school was enrolled in a program that allowed her to be automatically billed for certain course materials (the goal was to bring prices down for every student on a larger scale). Greenway was certain she could have found a used copy of the book at a cheaper price.

Sydney Greenway, a college student at the University of Pittsburgh, became a textbook affordability advocate after an unexpected charge her freshman year left her frustrated with what she considered to be an unfair system.
Sydney Greenway, a college student at the University of Pittsburgh, became a textbook affordability advocate after an unexpected charge her freshman year left her frustrated with what she considered to be an unfair system.

“It was a week of groceries for me,” she said of the $50 charge. “It’s not insignificant.”

Biden has made it clear to his advisers that the administration’s student loan relief efforts must be coupled with a broader strategy to bring down the soaring cost of college. A key tactic in that approach includes reining in often unpredictable expenses for food and textbooks.

One regulation the administration is championing would give students more of a direct say in how they pay for course materials. The rule prompted fierce pushback from the publishing industry, which has argued the policy will only raise prices for students.

Click here for a deep dive on textbooks: A fight over college textbook prices is leaving students unsure whom to believe about costs

Some of the main college oversight changes crafted by the Biden administration would tighten up college accreditation standards, particularly for online and for-profit schools. Others would eventually force schools to disclose whether their programs provide students a good return on investment. Another rule would prevent colleges from pocketing some of the extra federal money low-income students use to pay for food.

For any of these regulations to affect real people’s lives, the Education Department has to go through a lot of red tape. Though the specter of court challenges has always plagued government staffers who write those rules, they now worry their efforts will face even more scrutiny – and students will have to wait longer for the help they need.

Conservatives, for-profit advocates celebrate

Overturning Chevron was the culmination of a decadeslong push by conservatives to dismantle what they have deemed the "administrative state."

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican on a congressional committee overseeing education policy, sent letters June 30 to more than half a dozen agencies, including the Education Department, insisting they explain how they plan to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

He gave Cardona’s agency until the end of next week to respond. The GOP senator said he was pleased to see the “unfettered power” of federal bureaucrats finally being curbed.

In the Supreme Court's majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that it's the job of the judicial branch of government to interpret the law. Deferring to federal agencies, he wrote, "is simply not necessary to ensure that the resolution of statutory ambiguities is well informed by subject matter expertise."

The dissenting justices disagreed harshly. Justice Elena Kagan, a member of the court's liberal minority who worked in the Clinton administration decades ago, fretted over the consequences of leaving complex policy decisions up to judges. Shutting out the federal government’s vast reserve of experts would come at a cost, she warned.

“In every sphere of current or future federal regulation,” she wrote, “expect courts from now on to play a commanding role.”

Contributing: USA TODAY data and graphics reporter Sara Chernikoff

Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at zschermele@usatoday.com. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What the Supreme Court's Chevron decision means for schools

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