ED: Safeguarding Disability Rights, Expanding PSLF

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The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has released new resources designed to safeguard the civil rights of students with disabilities, specifically those diagnosed with sickle cell disease, epilepsy, and cancer. 

These resources aim to inform students, parents, families, and educational institutions about the protections provided under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The act prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities in institutions that receive federal financial assistance, encompassing almost all public schools and public and private higher education institutions. 

The new resources clarify when these medical conditions warrant protection under Section 504, detail the modifications that may be necessary to prevent unlawful discrimination, and outline steps to remedy past discrimination.

The OCR also enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. This is particularly relevant as statistical data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that over 90% of individuals with sickle cell disease in the U.S. are Black. Black Americans also have higher rates of active epilepsy and cancer compared to other racial and ethnic groups. 

In a press release, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon emphasized that these resources, accessible on the OCR website, are vital to help students and their families understand their rights under federal disability laws. 

In a separate initiative, ED has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to explore the potential expansion of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to include early childhood education (ECE) workers. 

This move seeks to address the financial struggles faced by ECE professionals, who are often underpaid and burdened with student debt. Since its inception in 2007, the PSLF program has allowed federal student loan borrowers employed by qualifying government or not-for-profit organizations to have their remaining loan balances forgiven after 120 qualifying payments. 

Recent efforts by the Biden-Harris Administration have significantly increased the number of borrowers receiving loan forgiveness. However, many ECE workers are currently excluded from PSLF due to their employers’ tax status. 

“Early childhood educators help young children learn, grow, and thrive. But they are often poorly compensated, and student debt is a problem. If these educators can access Public Service Loan Forgiveness, we can help our youngest children, their families, and their communities,” U.S. Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal said in a press release.

ED is gathering input from various stakeholders to understand how the PSLF program could be expanded to include ECE workers employed by private, for-profit businesses. This RFI seeks comments from experts and the public on determining employer eligibility and related considerations. The feedback will help the department better understand operational approaches but will not directly influence rulemaking regarding the eligibility of for-profit ECE providers for PSLF.