Florida sues feds over college and university accreditation

The state wants a judge to declare federal accreditation requirements unconstitutional and block Biden administration officials from enforcing them.

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

Contending that higher-education accreditation agencies wield “near limitless power” over colleges and universities, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has filed a lawsuit alleging federal laws and policies are unconstitutional.

Attorneys in Moody’s office contend in the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, that the challenged laws and policies have led to accreditors having an outsized amount of influence.

The lawsuit, for example, said colleges and universities “cannot freely choose their masters, as federal law requires them to show ‘reasonable cause’ to change accreditors.”

“The result is that private accrediting agencies enjoy near limitless power over state institutions,” said the lawsuit, which Moody and Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday during an appearance in Tampa.

The state wants a judge to declare the federal accreditation requirements unconstitutional and block Biden administration officials from enforcing them. Named as defendants are U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and several other Biden administration education officials.

The challenge comes as some Florida universities are in the process of changing accrediting agencies, with accreditation key to schools receiving federal student aid. After disputes with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS, the Legislature and DeSantis in 2022 approved a law that requires colleges and universities to periodically change accrediting agencies.

The 41-page lawsuit specifically cited SACS, which has been the accrediting agency for all Florida colleges and universities, saying the 2022 law was ““prompted by the (U.S. Department of Education’s) actions and incensed by SACS’ abuses.”

The disputes involved issues such as the accrediting agency’s president, Belle Wheelan, in 2021 taking issue with the possibility of then-state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran becoming president of Florida State University. Corcoran did not get the FSU job but is now interim president at New College of Florida.

Moody cited the FSU presidential search during Thursday’s event.

“They (SACS) felt like they were the governing body. In 2021, they threatened the accreditation status of FSU, because the Florida (university system) Board of Governors was considering our commissioner of education for the FSU president,” Moody said.

But the U.S. Department of Education last year cited the Florida changes as it released guidance about accreditation to colleges and universities and accrediting agencies.

“Recent changes to the accreditation landscape, such as the expansion of former regional accreditors to now accredit institutions outside their typical geographic boundaries and a new law in Florida that mandates public institutions to switch accrediting agencies before their next accreditation cycle, have been confusing to institutions and may also have a chilling effect on accrediting agencies as they seek to effectively do their job,” a July 19, 2022, announcement about the guidance said. “As a result, the Department (of Education) has taken a fresh look at the regulations and seeks to clarify the process for institutions looking to change accrediting agencies.”

The announcement, posted on the department’s website, was titled, “Postsecondary Accreditation Cannot Become a Race to the Bottom.”

“The department aims to protect against a race to the bottom and ensure that accreditation remains a voluntary process, as required by law, and that institutions are not forced to switch against their will,” the announcement said. “The department will continue to work with institutions and accrediting agencies to implement these processes and protocols and to further ensure strong standards to better serve all students.”

In the lawsuit, the state argues that federal laws and policies hamper colleges and universities’ efforts to change accreditors and violate parts of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which deals with the way federal agencies can craft and issue regulations.

“As it stands, state law requires over half of Florida’s public colleges and universities to change accreditors in the next two years. Their ability to do so is substantially burdened, if not entirely prevented, by federal laws that violate the Constitution and federal policies that violate the APA,” the lawsuit said.

DeSantis, who is running for president in 2024 and frequently criticizes the Biden administration, took aim at accrediting agencies during Thursday’s appearance.

“You cannot take legislative power and delegate it to an unaccountable private body and let them administer that power without any type of checks and balances,” DeSantis said.

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