Former Obama officials launch group to challenge DeVos

Maria Danilova
Associated Press

Washington — A group of former Obama education officials on Thursday launched a legal aid organization to challenge the Trump administration’s policies on student lending and civil rights.

The National Student Legal Defense Network will partner with state attorneys general and advocacy groups to file lawsuits on behalf of students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges or faced discrimination.

Since coming to office, Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has halted two key Obama-era regulations aimed at protecting students from fraud and predatory actions by for-profit universities and has frozen review of tens of thousands of student loan discharge applications.

Those actions as well as the Trump administration’s ties to the for-profit sector have prompted criticism that the Education Department is looking out for industry interests. Trump earlier this year paid $25 million to settle charges his Trump University misled customers, while DeVos appointed two senior officials from for-profit colleges.

“If Secretary DeVos continues to roll back protections for students without following the law, she will have to answer in court,” said the group’s co-founder Aaron Ament, a former chief of staff and special counsel at the Department of Education during the Obama administration. “Our group will continue to monitor the Department of Education and take legal action to stop regulatory moves that put the interests of for-profit college businessmen before students.”

Ament said the group will also support students in challenging DeVos’ decision to change the way colleges and universities handle allegations of sexual assault on campus. DeVos has said Obama’s guidance to campuses was skewed against students accused of sexual assault and she intends to set up a fair process.

The group will also represent transgender students fighting for the right to use the bathroom of their choice after the Trump administration signaled that the issue must be decided at the state level.

The group’s advisory board includes Catherine Lhamon, former assistant secretary for civil rights; James Cole Jr., former delegated deputy secretary and others. The organization will be sponsored financially by the New Leaders Council, a nationwide nonprofit devoted to training young progressive leaders, but it will be soon be launching its own fundraising campaign.

The Education Department did not issue an immediate comment.

Policy reversals on hot-button social issues are common with a change of administrations, said William Galston, an expert with the Brookings Institution, who served in the Clinton administration. But policies put in place through executive orders, regulations or guidance letters prove much easier to change than legislation, he added.

Anita McBride, a public affairs scholar at American University and a former Bush official, said it is common for members of past administrations to join think-tanks and advocacy organizations that champion their respective party’s causes.

“They certainly are concerned about the undoing of the policies they worked on that they feel are integral to American ideals and that has fueled their energy and desire to do whatever they can do to preserve those policies,” McBride said. “Just because they are not public service, it doesn’t mean they no longer have a voice.”

Galston said the launching of the group is yet another illustration of unprecedented political polarization in American society.

“We’ve been in an abnormal situation of high conflict between the parties for a very long time,” Galston said. “It’s happening because in the area of the social issues the two political parties disagree very fundamentally.”