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Gov. Ron DeSantis sues Biden administration over university accrediting system

The lawsuit challenges a federal law that requires colleges and universities to submit to private acreditors to qualify for federal funding

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., speaks during his campaign stop at Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., Thursday, June 22, 2023.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., speaks during his campaign stop at Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., Thursday, June 22, 2023.Katie Goodale (AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that the state has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration and the U.S. Department of Education over accreditation agencies, which control federal aid for students. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale federal court, challenges a federal law that requires colleges and universities to submit to private acreditors to qualify for federal funding. It targets the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Miguel Cardona and other federal officials.

The suit comes as DeSantis, who is seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, imposes his conservative agenda on the state’s education system. Earlier this year, he appointed trustees to the board of New College of Florida, a tiny Sarasota school of about 1,000 students that was best known for its progressive thought and creative course offerings. The new board intends to turn the school into a classical liberal arts school modeled after conservative favorite Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Speaking about the accreditation lawsuit on Thursday, DeSantis said he refuses “to bow to unaccountable acreditors who think they should run Florida’s public universities. “We’re asking the court to find this arrangement to be unconstitutional,” DeSantis said.

Under federal law, the private accrediting agencies decide which universities and colleges are eligible for approximately $112 billion in federal funding. The agencies provide a standard of requirements that universities must follow to maintain accreditation.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS, oversees the accreditation of colleges and universities in Florida.

However, Florida passed a law last year that prohibits colleges and universities from being accredited by the same agency or association for consecutive accreditation cycles. It also allows universities to sue accreditors for damages if they believe they had been negatively affected.

The state law requires more than half of Florida’s public colleges and universities to change accreditors in the next two years. Their ability to make these changes “is substantially burdened” by what DeSantis described as the Biden administration’s “abuse of the current accreditation scheme.”

In order to seek a new accreditor, a university must receive permission from the U.S. Department of Education.

“You cannot take legislative power and delegate it to an unaccountable private body,” DeSantis said. “Under their theory, the accreditor can serve as a veto against the entire state of Florida,” he said.

He noted that the accrediting agency seeks to take the responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of colleges and universities away from the governor, Legislature and taxpayers.

“So, you know, that’s a view that really, this board trumps the entire state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “We reject that, and today we are going to do something about it.”

DeSantis and Moody cited as an example that SACS “threatened the accreditation of Florida State University” in 2021 when Richard Corcoran, then the state’s commissioner of education, was a candidate to be the next president of the school. The accrediting agency said Corcoran’s candidacy posed a potential conflict of interest if he failed to resign as schools commissioner.

Florida State eventually selected Richard McCullough as its president. Earlier this year, Corcoran was selected as an interim president of New College. Earlier this year, DeSantis appointed six new trustees to run the college.

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