DeVos Loosens For-Profit College Rules; More State Cash May Head To Religious Schools

The Supreme Court is seen on the last day of its term, in Washington on Monday. The Court ruled this week that Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center could not be excluded from a state grant to resurface its play area, just because the school has a religious affiliation.

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Hello and welcome to our weekly education news roundup.

DeVos “presses pause” on for-profit college regulation

Two weeks ago we reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was rolling back a rule intended to rein in for-profit colleges, called “gainful employment.” On Friday she took a further step back.

On July 1, colleges were supposed to begin disclosing information about program performance to students in their marketing materials. They now have an extra year to comply.

“Once fully implemented, the current rules would unfairly and arbitrarily limit students’ ability to pursue certain types of higher education and career training programs,” DeVos said in a statement.

As we reported on the details of the rule:

“Colleges and universities were to be evaluated based on how many graduates are able to pay back their loans. The logic being, if too many students end up with low incomes and high debt, the program is not offering good value for money. Programs that consistently failed the test were supposed to lose access to federal student-aid dollars.”

The New York Times noted recently that evidence suggests gainful employment had been working as advertised, in that colleges are voluntarily shutting down the programs that provide the worst return on investment.

New voucher report cards for Indiana, Louisiana

This Monday, NPR Ed took an early look at two important new studies of students who use vouchers.

A handful of recent studies had shown student achievement plummeting when kids left public schools for private ones using vouchers.

These two studies each showed an eventual rebound for students who stayed at the private schools for at least three years in Louisiana and at least four years in Indiana.

Various groups of students ended up a little ahead in English. In Louisiana, students who came to private schools in lower grades were still behind in math.

Supreme Court case has implications for private school choice

Speaking of vouchers, a toddlers’ playground in Columbia, Mo., may have become a historic site in the effort to expand school voucher programs. That’s because the Supreme Court ruled this week that Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center could not be excluded from using tax dollars to resurface its play area, just because the school has a religious affiliation.

As Nina Totenberg wrote for NPR:

“School choice advocates rejoiced at the decision, seeing it as a vehicle for funneling taxpayer money to private religious schools.”

Meanwhile, Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke in dissent, calling the decision “radical,” because it “profoundly changes” the relationship between church and state “by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.””

Tax credit scholarships are not tax money, rules Georgia’s Supreme Court

Notwithstanding the ruling from Washington, 38 states have so-called “Blaine Amendments” to their constitutions that specifically prohibit directing public money to private religious schools and thus stand in the way of regular voucher programs. A workaround, though, has emerged in 17 states, called a “tax credit scholarship.” Individuals and businesses donate money to a private scholarship fund and receive a tax credit for up to 100 percent of each dollar they give. (In some cases, as we’ve reported, they can actually make money on the donation). President Trump has praised tax credit scholarship programs in Florida and elsewhere.

Well, the Georgia Supreme Court just ruled that this workaround is legally protected, in the Peach State anyway. Tax credit scholarship donations are not considered public funds because they never touch the treasury, even though Georgia taxpayers reduce their tax bills by a dollar for every dollar they donate. Thus, they don’t violate the state’s Blaine Amendment, the court held.

Mixed reviews for state Every Student Succeeds Act plans

A total of 17 states have now told the U.S. Department of Education, in detail, how they plan to comply with the federal law that exhorts all students and all schools to keep getting better. More than 30 bipartisan experts have reviews of those state plans posted at CheckStatePlans.org. The plans are being rated on several factors:

  • their clarity of goals;
  • the quality of indicators, including tests, aligned with those goals;
  • their commitment to all groups of students including the traditionally underserved;
  • and how good a job they do at identifying schools most in need of help.

A newish concept that’s coming to bear with this new law is the idea of measuring student growth. Instead of counting the number of students who meet a given standard, growth targets are intended to capture the progress that all students make from year to year.

Perhaps surprisingly, the states with the best-reputed schools don’t necessarily have the best-rated improvement plans and vice versa.

New Mexico, for example, earned top marks. The state has set an ambitious goal of getting two-thirds of its students to college, while reducing the number that need remedial classes when they get there. And there are clear remedies for low-performing schools.

Massachusetts, on the other hand, was dinged for a vague, “abstract” and incomplete plan.

The rest of the states are supposed to submit plans in September.

Oregon cuts back on its community college “promise”

Free community college programs have been growing around the nation. Oregon, facing a budget crunch, has introduced new guidelines that restrict families earning more than $100,000 a year from its program. The changes may affect an estimated one in six applicants.

“This will create significant hardships for some students whose college plans were premised on getting this award and who will find out this summer that they don’t receive it,” a state education official told The Oregonian newspaper.

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To Solve Gruesome Desert Mysteries, Scientists Become Body Collectors

A double set of fences topped with barbed wire circles this outdoor decomposition site outside Grand Junction, Colo. The barrier thwarts prying eyes and protects the curious from an unpleasant surprise.

Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

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Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

Before she confrontsdeath straight on, Melissa Connor always puts on a pair of rubber boots. The shelf she takes the shoes from includes a bottle of hand sanitizer, a sign warning people to check their shoes for scorpions and a bundle of wooden stakes, each of which will eventually be marked with the abbreviation “Mr.” or “Ms.” followed by a number.

Then Connor opens the back door of her lab, located just outside Grand Junction, Colo., and steps onto a gravel path. It’s squint-your-eyes bright out here, and everything is dry — the air, the crumbly dirt, the scrubby plants. The only movement comes from the wind, an occasional car on the nearby highway and the prairie dogs that come out of their dens to chatter at intruders.

“I think we have the most scenic of the decomposition facilities, myself,” says Connor, a forensic scientist at Colorado Mesa University, as she approaches a fenced plot of land on rolling hills of sagebrush, with snow-topped mountains in the distance. A whiff of something that smells like a cross between stagnant pond and roadkill wafts by.

This site is officially called the Forensic Investigation Research Station, but people sometimes refer to the small plot Connor is walking toward as a “body farm.”

She arrives at a 10-foot-tall fence — topped with razor wire, with a second gate in front of that. The double barrier keeps curious people from peering through the cracks in the big fence.

“Yeah. There are oh-so-many reasons for the big fence,” says Connor. It’s sunk 2 feet into the ground and, among other things, keeps coyotes from walking off with human body parts. “Wouldn’t be good P.R.,” Connor explains.

Dry buttes and colonies of prairie dogs surround the Forensic Investigation Research Station in Whitewater, Colo.

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(Editor’s note:Those readers who are squeamish about descriptions of decaying bodies may want to skip the next nine paragraphs.)

The small plot, about an acre in size, contains rows of human remains. There are 36 bodies in all — donated either by the people themselves, in instructions before death, or by their families after the fact. The bodies are naked, and lying face-up as if cloud-gazing.

There are seven “body farm” facilities like these across the U.S. This is the only decomposition site west of the Mississippi, and the only one in a dry climate.

“This is Mr. 1612,” says Connor as she stands over a body teeming with maggots and flies. “He came in late in 2016. The insects have found the incisions from the autopsy and laid their eggs there, and they’re doing their thing.”

Chrissy Baigent corresponds with families who have donated their loved one’s remains to the body farm. She also cleans each skeleton once the other tissue has decomposed, and lays out the bones for students to study.

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“Aggressive wriggling,” adds Christiane “Chrissie” Baigent, a research assistant at the station, who checks on the bodies daily. She’s the one who will eventually collect each set of remains once they’ve finished decomposing, bring them to a gentle boil in the lab to remove any remaining tissue, and mark each bone with a number before adding the skeleton to a slowly growing teaching collection.

“There’s no one, absolutely no one, who looks good in decomp,” says Connor, who trained as an archaeologist before excavating mass graves in Croatia, Rwanda, Cyprus and Iraq — primarily with a group called Physicians for Human Rights.

Connor and Baigent are so accustomed to the sight and smell of rotting human bodies that their stomachs will growl at lunchtime, even if at that very moment they’re crouched over a bloated corpse.

Usually, bodies go from greenish to grayish to brown and black as generations of insects eat everything except the skeleton. But that’s not what will happen to Mr. 1612. Out here, the usual rules of decay don’t apply.

Instead of turning gray, for example, his body might turn as bright orange as a traffic cone. His skin will dry out and harden so much that bugs won’t be able to chew through it.

Out here in the desert, Mr. 1612 will likely become a mummy. When he does, it’ll look like he’s decaying in slow motion.

Increasingly important work

About 700 miles south, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the lessons from the Colorado body farm are all too relevant.

“There are literally thousands of migrants dying every year,” says Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima County, Ariz. “We still have bones and bodies coming in, if not on a daily basis, on a weekly basis.”

Over the last 20 years, he says his office has worked on identifying the remains of almost 3,000 people known or thought to have crossed the border without documentation. Some of them were alive 10 minutes before border patrol found them, he says. Others had been dead for decades. Many of these people likely died trying to cross the border into the U.S.

“It doesn’t matter to me if they’re American or not,” says Anderson. “They’re dead, and they have people looking for them and people that miss them and people that love them. So, that’s why we do what we do.”

In recent years, more bodies have been showing up. That’s not because more people are crossing the border in that area; the number of people crossing the border from Mexico has actually gone down, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. Instead, Anderson says, it’s because of the ramp up in border patrol agents working in the region. More boots on the ground means more eyes looking for migrants, whether alive or dead.

An essential part of Anderson’s work for the county medical examiner is figuring out when someone died, because often the only clue that relatives can offer is when their loved one disappeared.

“If a skeleton is found in the Sonoran Desert and we think the person died between one and two years ago — versus five and 20 years ago — that can save a lot of time in going through missing persons reports from those two time periods,” says Anderson.

It’s particularly important for the cases Anderson works on, because, while there’s a single database for missing American citizens, there’s a whole patchwork of missing-person lists for foreign nationals — lists maintained by various consulates and independent organizations. Some of the records aren’t even digitized.

“You literally have to have a person sit down with paper records or an Excel spreadsheet and look through descriptions of tattoos or crooked teeth or pink tennis shoes or yellow T-shirts,” Anderson says.

Narrowing down when a person died can mean the difference between identifying a body and having to bury it anonymously.

Mr. 1401

Back at the Colorado body farm, Connor stands over one body in particular.

“Mr. 1401. He’s the individual we deposited here in January 2014,” says Connor. There are no maggots or flies on this body. What’s left of his tissue is a brittle shell. If a mouse walked over it, the remains would fall apart.

“If you went and looked at a rock and you saw the black lichen on a rock, that’s sort of what the body looks like,” says Eriek Hansen, a biologist with Colorado Mesa University who also does research at the body farm.

“He has what I think actually is a black mold on some of him,” says Connor. And, she says, “There are portions of the tissue that are much more parchment- or vellum-colored.”

Chrissy Baigent holds a human pelvic bone from the field.

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Existing methods for determining when someone died would not work on this body. Because he turned into a mummy, Mr. 1401 looks as if his body has been out in the desert for a few months, even though it’s been more than three years since he died.

Baigent, Connor and Hansen are working on new ways to measure changes in moisture, color, bloating and texture of tissue that, with the help of weather data, would let them accurately calculate how many days a body like this has been outside.

“We want to narrow that estimate down as much as we can, to help law enforcement figure out who those people might be,” says Connor, who says local law enforcement call her office between one and four times a year for help identifying a body.

Hansen is using electricity to measure how much moisture a body has lost over time. Baigent and Connor have come up with a detailed scoring system to describe exactly how a body’s skin quality changes as time goes on, using words like “parchment,” “vellum” and “burnt umber.” There’s even something they call “pebbled mosaic,” which happens when skin sloughs off, leaving tissue islands, which Baigent says is a hint that a body has been outside longer than initial estimates would suggest.

It takes a trained eye — and a strong gut — to notice these subtle changes.

“When you’re looking at the whole body, it doesn’t look like significant changes are occurring,” says Baigent, but they are. You just have to look closely.

If the research team can pin down those details, it could help their colleagues to the south bring closure to the families of those who died. The remains of countless people still lie unidentified.

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'Healing Children': A Surgeon's Take On What Kids Need

Dr. Kurt Newman visits with 14-year-old Jack Pessaud, who’s undergoing treatment for a cancerous tumor in his knee at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

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For parents, the thought of a child being sick or hurt can be a heart-stopper. Fortunately, for those who do confront such realities, there are doctors like Kurt Newman.

Newman is president and CEO of Children’s National Health System, known as Children’s National, in Washington, D.C. He started there as a surgeon more than 30 years ago.

In his memoir, Healing Children: A Surgeon’s Stories From The Frontiers Of Pediatric Medicine, he argues that children are not just smaller, softer adults, and that the differences matter for their treatment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Medically speaking, how are children distinct from adults?

It starts with size. In some cases, you need special equipment, or you might need special medications that work differently on children. Their biology is different. They’re more resilient. They bounce back. They heal better.

And then there’s a whole idea about development — for example, the developing brain. You have to think about how that brain is now, and how it’s going to develop, and what should we do now so that we maximize the potential for that child.

When you think about a child, they need protection. They’re not fully formed or fully mature. Their organs are not what they’re going to be. But at the same time, that immaturity allows so much bounce back and so much healing and so much ability. So you have to take both those things into mind as you take care of a child.

What changes do you want to see in health care for children?

Over half of the children we take care of are on Medicaid. And as I look at the debates in Congress and in Washington, I worry because I’m not sure that children are enough of a national priority for us.

Before becoming president and CEO of Children’s National, Newman was a surgeon at the hospital.

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Meredith Rizzo/NPR

I would really prioritize how we care for children. I’d make sure that we’re training more doctors [and] more nurses that are specialized in pediatric care. I’d do more research into the causes of some of the diseases that we take care of, to try to prevent them or diagnose them early. I’d put a lot more into mental and behavioral health. Over 20 percent of the kids have some sort of mental health or behavioral health issues. And I’d probably build a few more children’s hospitals.

At a children’s hospital, you know you’re going to get care that’s focused exclusively on children, and there’s a priceless value to that. If your child is undergoing anesthesia, you want to make sure that the person putting your child to sleep is trained in pediatrics. Or if you go to an emergency department — our emergency department sees 150 kids a day. So why go to an emergency department where they may only see five or 10 kids a day? They may not even have the equipment that’s needed.

I want to empower parents with this book to understand what I know — the special value of children’s hospitals and pediatric specialists.

Over the years, there must be patients you haven’t been able to help.

That’s part of the inspiration of the job, to think about the children we couldn’t do enough for. In surgery, I would try and create a professional distance, but there’s one I think about all the time.

His name was Casey. We called him “the Mayor.” He had this infectious gregariousness. He was always more interested in how the other patients were doing, or how I was doing. I had to operate on him a number of times. He had a bone tumor that was discovered [when] he was playing soccer.

He kept wanting to get the next surgery or get the next chemotherapy, because he had this sense that there was something more out there. I think in a way, he wanted that for other kids.

We want to do more for kids, and there are so many exciting discoveries. The frontier of pediatric medicine is so alive with new ideas and innovation. That’s what drives us — kids like Casey — so we can do more.

Weekend Editioneditor Jordana Hochman contributed to this story.

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Gunman Who Ambushed Baton Rouge Officers Searched For Police Home Addresses

A Baton Rouge police officer kneels at the casket of Cpl. Montrell Jackson, one of three officers ambushed and killed by a gunman July 17, 2016.

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The gunman who set an ambush last summer for police in Baton Rouge, La., had written about killing officers before the attack, according to a new report released Friday by the local prosecutor.

A surveillance camera image showing the gunman who shot three Baton Rouge police officers, killing three, last year.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office

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East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office

Three lawmen were killed and three others were wounded on July 17, 2016, near a convenience store close to police headquarters. It happened less than two weeks after Baton Rouge had erupted in protests after the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man killed in a struggle with police. The events had Baton Rouge on edge, with emotions raw.

The report includes video and still images of the shooter, 29-year-old Gavin Long, an Iraqi war veteran from Missouri. He’s dressed in all black with a hood and face mask, armed with a rifle over his shoulder. The video shows him shooting officers in a 13-minute ordeal that ended when Long was killed in a gunfight with a special response team.

Eastern Baton Rouge District Attorney’s OfficeYouTube

The fallen officers were Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola, and Baton Rouge policemen Montrell Jackson and Matthew Lane Gerald.

The nearly year-long investigation by local, state and federal officials concludes that Long was killed “in the course and scope of their employment as law enforcement officers and under circumstances where their use of deadly force was legally justified.”

Investigators report that the gunman who killed three Baton Rouge officers last year used this semi-automatic rifle.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office

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East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III says Long left a three-page suicide note in his rental car in which he talked about the “destruction” he must inflict upon cops.

“He had angst and animus against police officers whether good or bad,” says Moore, describing the letter. “He says he understands he may have to kill even good officers – that good officers may have to die because [of] bad officers.”

Investigators say Long had searched online for the home addresses of Baton Rouge policemen involved in the fatal shooting of Sterling. He had posted online video calling for bloodshed in response to police-involved killings before coming to Baton Rouge on July 12.

Moore says investigators found no evidence that Long had any support from anyone in Baton Rouge.

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State Officials Of Both Parties Reject Requests For Voters' Identification Details

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, seen earlier this month, says he is among the state officials who isn’t able to provide all the voter identification details the national commission he vice-chairs is seeking.

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More than a dozen states said Friday that they would not, or could not, give a White House commission looking into voter fraud detailed voter registration data as requested.

The request came in a letter Wednesday to all 50 states from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is vice chair of the new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. President Trump established the commission after he alleged, without providing evidence, that as many as five million people voted illegally last November. The panel — headed by Vice President Mike Pence — has been charged with looking into voting problems and recommending ways to improve public confidence in elections.

The letter asks each state to send the panel all publicly available voter registration information by July 14, including the names, addresses, birth dates, partial Social Security numbers, party affiliation, felon status and other data for every registered voter in the country.

Several states said they would not comply because of concerns about the panel’s motives and how the information would be used.

“New York refuses to perpetuate the myth voter fraud played a role in our election,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement. “We will not be complying with this request and I encourage the Election Commission to work on issues of vital importance to voters, including ballot access, rather than focus on debunked theories of voter fraud.”

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said she too would not comply because of her concerns about how the data would be secured.

“I’m not going to risk sensitive information for 3.2 million Kentuckians getting in the wrong hands, into the public domain and possibly for the wrong reasons, to keep people away from the ballot box,” she told Shapiro.

Grimes and other Democrats say they worry that the commission’s findings will be used to legitimize efforts by Kobach and others to enact strict ID and other voter requirements around the country.

In response, Kobach told NPR’s Shapiro that the commission was requesting the information so that it could “understand issues of voter registration fraud. … If you don’t have the voter rolls, the commission really will have a hard time studying problems of voter registration.” Kobach said that the panel was only requesting data that “any person on the street can walk into a county election office and get. It’s not sensitive information at all,” a characterization many election officials dispute.

Kobach said the panel would like to compare the state rolls against federal Social Security Administration and citizenship databases to see if there are those on the rolls who have died or are non-citizens, and if anyone voted in their names.

“We have lots of people making claims on both sides about fraudulent voting in the name of dead people,” he said. “Well, let’s just use the federal databases and find out how big a problem it is.”

Many experts say the problem with comparing such databases is that it often leads to mismatches because of inaccuracies or differences in how names are listed. Some voting rights groups worry that it could lead to legitimate voters being purged from the rolls, even though Kobach noted that the federal panel would have no authority to do that.

In his statement announcing refusal to comply with the request, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, noted that Kobach has a history of pushing tough voter requirements, which opponents say can hurt minority voters. “His role as vice chair is proof that the ultimate goal of the commission is to enact policies that will result in the disenfranchisement of American citizens,” Padilla said.

Kobach said he found such arguments “bizarre.” He acknowledged, however, that the panel does not have the authority to force states to comply with the request. “It’s simply an ask,” he told NPR.

While the strongest opposition has come from Democrats so far, several Republican secretaries of state, including Tennessee’s Tre Hargett, said they would be unable to comply because of state restrictions on sharing sensitive data. “Tennessee state law does not allow my office to release the voter information requested to the federal commission,” Hargett said in a statement.

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, also a Republican, said he had yet to receive the commission’s request but that his reply to such a request would be: “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great State to launch from.” He cited the need to protect the privacy of state citizens “by conducting our own electoral processes.”

Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted also said that confidential state information would not be shared with the commission. “We do not want federal intervention in our state’s right and responsibility to conduct elections,” he added in a statement.

Wisconsin’s administrator of elections, Michael Haas, said that his state’s voter registration data is available, but for a fee of $12,500.

Even one of the Democratic members of the commission, Maine’s Democratic Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, said he was reviewing Kobach’s request to see if the state can comply. Under Maine law, recipients of state voter data are not allowed to share it or make it public, but Kobach’s letter says anything sent to the White House panel will be available to the public.

And in a bizarre twist Friday afternoon, Kobach revealed in an interview with the Kansas City Star that even he wouldn’t be providing the panel with all the information requested. He said his state will not be turning over Social Security numbers at this time. “In Kansas, the Social Security number is not publicly available,” he told the paper.

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