Battle Over Student Loan Collection Fees
By: Michael Stratford, Politico
July 21, 2016
POLITICAL MUSCLE TO PROTECT FEES: Amid a brewing political and legal battle over student loan collection fees, United Student Aid Funds — a guaranty agency at the center of the fight — is stepping up its lobbying game. Records filed this week show the organization spent $90,000 in the first half of 2016 to lobby against an Obama administration directive that limits its ability to charge certain fees to defaulted borrowers— the same amount it spent in lobbying during all of 2015.
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— At issue is whether guaranty agencies collecting federally-backed loans are allowed to impose collection fees when a borrower defaults on his or her debt but quickly agrees to start repaying. The Obama administration says no. But USA Funds argues that the Higher Education Act permits them to impose such fees, and that the fees were longstanding industry practice before the Education Department’s directive upended it last year.
— USA Funds is now fighting that guidance in federal court, where its attorneys [http://politico.pro/29Q7sHg] and the government’s lawyers [http://politico.pro/29Q7MWJ] sparred in filings this week over whether Congress originally intended to allow the fees. An attorney for USA Funds previously said that “hundreds of millions of dollars” are at stake in the case for his client and other guaranty agencies.
— But the non-profit organization — which is led by Bill Hansen, a former top education official in the Bush administration — is also waging a political fight against the Obama administration’s prohibition on the fees. In recent months, USA Funds hired lobbyists such as Ed Pagano, who was Obama’s deputy assistant for legislative affairs and a former Sen. Tom Harkin staffer, and Arshi Siddiqui, a former senior adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
— A legislative provision blocking the administration’s ban on the fees was slipped into the education funding bill that House Republicans initially proposed earlier this month [http://bit.ly/29j15ff]. But lawmakers removed the policy rider from the bill last week after Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) indicated she would fight the measure. In an email to Morning Education, her office called the rider “particularly insidious for disadvantaged student debtors.”
— An appeals court last year sided against USA Funds on this issue, ruling that a Minnesota woman was incorrectly charged $4,547 in collection fees (on her roughly $18,000 in outstanding debt) as she was trying to get her loans out of default. The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal and that case is back at the district court [http://politico.pro/1TEOBOW]. A judge is now weighing a decision in the separate lawsuit between USA Funds and the Education Department.
NODS TO SCHOOL CHOICE AT RNC: Republicans made only fleeting references to education during their presidential nominating convention Wednesday night. But when speakers did weigh in on education, they focused almost exclusively on one issue: school choice.
— Sen. Ted Cruz may not have endorsed his party’s nominee for president, but he did enthusiastically express support for school choice. Calling for “a return to freedom,” Cruz discussed the importance of “your freedom to choose your child’s education, even if you aren’t as rich as Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.”
— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Donald Trump would “rebuild our education system and give every parent of every income and every ethnic background a choice about where their children go to school.”
— And Trump’s VP pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said his running mate “loves educational choice.”
TEACHER PREP EFFORT TAKES NEXT STEP: A joint effort of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology now has approval from the Bay State to start licensing STEM teachers through its competency-based teacher preparation program. The Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning was launched [http://politi.co/29MCu7y] last summer with the goal of “throwing out the clock” when it comes to teacher preparation and “shifting the focus of certification from ‘hours in class’ to proven competency in the skills and knowledge every teacher and education leader needs to succeed.” More: http://bit.ly/2ahwkN6.
— ASCD on Wednesday named 17 teachers who will be the first to receive Teacher Impact Grants — funding announced at the White House earlier this year, which is designed to support teacher leadership projects. The grants range from $5,000 to $15,000, and the projects will be carried out during the upcoming school year. Details: http://bit.ly/1TtQgXv.
USDA FINALIZING SMART SNACK, SCHOOL WELLNESS POLICIES: The Agriculture Department today is finalizing nutrition standards for school snacks and updating requirements for wellness policies, which will be formally announced by Deputy Under Secretary Katie Wilson. The Smart Snack standards for foods sold a la carte, in vending machines, school stores or at fundraisers already were implemented during the 2014-2015 school year under an interim final rule, so today’s move is largely to give people confidence that “these are the rules schools have to operate under for the foreseeable future,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at Pew Charitable Trusts.
— Donze Black said the forthcoming guidance on local wellness policies is expected to strengthen what school districts must address in terms of nutrition, physical education and food marketing, along with the level of engagement with the community when developing a policy and implementation plan. School districts will likely be directed to prohibit the marketing of foods that aren’t also sold in school.
— The rules fall under the broader school nutrition reforms made under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, and are some of the final changes to be carried out by the USDA.
CHIEFS FOR CHANGE ON ESSA ACCOUNTABILITY: The education reform group Chiefs for Change is weighing in on the Education Department’s draft rule for holding schools accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act. They’re happy with the requirement that states come up with summative ratings — essentially a concrete score or evaluation for schools rather than a “dashboard” of data — and a requirement that states test at least 95 percent of students each year, and factor it into their accountability systems. But the chiefs — along with a number of other groups — have concerns about the timeline for implementing the draft rule. And when it comes to summative ratings, they’d like the Education Department to give states examples of different models they can use, without requiring them to use a particular one, since there’s a concern that the draft rule limits states to A-F grading systems. More: http://bit.ly/29WsneS.
ICYMI: OBAMA ADMIN UNVEILS LOAN SERVICING DETAILS: The Obama administration on Wednesday outlined in greater detail how it plans to overhaul the government’s system for collecting payments from federal student loan borrowers. The Education Department released a 56-page memo [http://bit.ly/2aaxDw2] that describes the new standards it intends to set for the companies it hires to collect federal student loans.
— Among the changes: a “specially-trained unit of high-touch servicing staff” to help borrowers who are at risk of default. The policies would also require better communication with borrowers and tweaks to how servicers process payments so that they are more beneficial for borrowers. And the department pledged to make more detailed information public about how its loan servicers are performing, along with other new data points about how well borrowers are repaying their loans. More: http://politico.pro/2aaxLMi.
LAWMAKER REMEMBERED: Hawaii state schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi honored Hawaii Democratic Rep. Mark Takai on Wednesday as a “staunch advocate for Hawaii’s public schools.” Takai, 49, died earlier in the day from complications from pancreatic cancer. [http://politi.co/29W94Ce] Matayoshi said Takai “advocated tirelessly for funding and resources to help the Department’s efforts in providing quality education for all children.” She said he was a role model and remains an “example of leadership and service to communities.” [http://bit.ly/29UPBR4] Takai was a member of the Hawaii National Guard and served in Iraq. In Congress, Takai served as ranking member of a Small Business subcommittee and was also a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
MOVERS AND SHAKERS
— Pamela Moran has been made a senior adviser for American Student Assistance’s consumer advocacy group. She previously spent 29 years at the Education Department.
— Randi Weingarten was re-elected to her fifth term as president of the American Federation of Teachers at the union’s annual convention in Minneapolis. She won with 97.6 percent of the vote, the AFT said.
REPORT ROLL CALL
— Mark Zuckerman, president of the Century Foundation, makes recommendations to improve the Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness repayment programs: http://bit.ly/29W6Z5U.
— The Boston Globe finds 15 instances of retaliation at New England private schools against students or employees who raised concerns about sexual abuse by staffers: http://bit.ly/29Wl4As
— Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a high-ranking member of the Senate education committee, says that this is his last election. Stars and Stripes: http://bit.ly/2aaG8Y6
— At GOP convention, even some delegates clueless on Trump's education stance. Education Week: http://bit.ly/29PnIrZ
— Wisconsin school district facing suit over treatment of transgender student says it is following the law. The Washington Post: http://wapo.st/2ad8TSe
— Rhode Island’s education commissioner defends decision to drop testing for 10th graders. Providence Journal: http://bit.ly/29WOIGq
— Florida Board of Education approves improvement plan for Pinellas schools. Tampa Bay Times: http://bit.ly/29W4FMw
— The scariest student loan number. The Atlantic: http://theatln.tc/2aaHfqJ
Wall Street Vultures May Have Wrecked the Central States Pension Fund
By: Bruce Vail, In These Times
July 21, 2016
Bowing to the demands of thousands of angry Teamsters, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) has agreed to conduct an inquiry into the past investments of the Central States Pension Fund, the organization that manages the retirement benefits for more than 400,000 union members, both retired and active.
One goal of the inquiry is to determine whether Goldman Sachs and other investment advisors caused the Fund to lose money, endangering the future pensions of retired truck drivers and other Teamster union members.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) hailed the GAO action as a victory for workers, many of whom have been pressuring Congress to take action on behalf of the pensioners.
“It’s astonishing to now read about how Wall Street firms hired by Central States invested retirees’ pension funds in Iraq in 2008, right in the middle of a full-scale war in Iraq. Or how they invested in unstable Russian banks, when the economy there is in shambles, or how they sunk $1.4 billion into risky Single A-rated mortgage-backed bonds in the middle of the housing meltdown. Something is simply wrong, and the GAO will get to the bottom of this,” she said.
Behind the GAO review is the conviction by some of the retirees that investment advisors like Goldman Sachs and the Chicago-based Northern Trust Corporation profited off the Fund by pushing questionable investment strategies while raking in exorbitant management fees. If true, a full accounting might lead to a return of some of the money lost and partial repairs to the damaged finances of the Fund, pension activists say.
“The pension plan lost $11 billion in a 15-month period,” while Goldman was advising the plan, and Goldman should pay some of the money back, said Leroy Goans, a retired union truck driver in Cincinnati.
Hopes that the GAO report will lead to a massive recovery that will ensure existing pension benefits may be overblown, but the inquiry is worth pursuing nevertheless, says Norman Stein, a senior policy advisor to Pension Rights Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that is advising the Teamster retirees.
Stein pointed to a lawsuit against Northern Trust that was settled last year, in which Northern Trust agreed to make good on pension plan investment losses involving some of its other clients, including the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund.
“I don’t have specific knowledge regarding Northern Trust, but the case illustrates that pension plans can sometimes recover losses when its advisors behave improperly," he says.
But Stein expressed doubts that a lawsuit brought by Central States, even if meritorious, could recover sufficient sums of money to make a real difference in the plan's financial health.
“Having the GAO look at this is a worthwhile thing to do. The question is open on whether it will wind up helping the pensioners,” who face the threat of benefit cuts in the future, Stein says. “We just need to be patient and let the GAO do its job” of a thorough review.
According to a spokesman at Northern Trust, it has served as a court appointed “named fiduciary” to the Central States Pension Fund since 2005, with responsibility and authority to control and manage the investment of certain assets of the Fund.
“From inception through Dec. 31, 2015, the Northern Trust portfolio has generated returns in line with its benchmark. The investment losses stemming from the global financial crisis of 2008 were fully recovered and are not a primary reason for the plan’s funding gap,” spokesman John O’Connell said in an email.
Goldman Sachs declined to comment for this story.
As reported by In These Times, chronic financial problems with the Central States Pension Fund are threatening to force cuts in the pension payments to hundreds of thousands of retirees. Rep. Kaptur summed up the problem by estimating the plan has about $16.8 billion in assets but long-term pension benefit obligations of $35 billion. Without benefit cuts, or an infusion of new money, the plan ultimately faces insolvency.
Kaptur was one of the first members of Congress to come forward as an advocate for the Teamster pensioners when they launched a grassroots campaign last year to block proposed cuts. Congressional supporters of the campaign have been growing steadily in number since then, and a formal request by Kaptur and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) for the GAO to review the records of Central States was co-signed by more than 40 House members and 10 members of the Senate.
A bill jointly sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kaptur—the Keep Our Pension Promises Act (KOPPA)—now has 10 co-sponsors in the Senate and 52 co-sponsors in the House. Because all of the co-sponsors are traditional pro-labor Democrats, activists like Goans are not optimistic the bill will pass in its current form, but believe that continued lobbying of Republican members of Congress could produce a compromise.
“I think there are Republicans who want to solve this problem. I don’t think anybody has hit on exactly the right solution yet, but maybe the GAO will move us in the right direction,” Goans says.
$700 Million Retool of the Toledo Jeep North Assembly Plant Announced
By: Norwalk Reflector
July 15, 2016
TOLEDO — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles today announced its planned $700 million investment in the Toledo Assembly Complex North Plant to produce the next generation Jeep Wrangler.
“This is almost beyond belief, given where we were eight short years ago,” said U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the co-chair of the Congressional Auto Caucus who for the past eight years has spearheaded efforts to support the comeback of the US domestic automobile sector.
“This is the great American comeback story of this century, and it’s a testament to the superb quality of the Jeep Wrangler, and the superb quality of the Toledo Assembly Complex frontline assembly workers, the plant management, the countless brilliant engineers, and its partnership with the United Auto Workers’ Local 12. For 75 years Toledans have manufactured Wranglers. FCA’s investment today will ensure this legacy remains for years to come.”
According to initial reports, the expansion of the North Plant will create 700 new jobs. An announcement regarding the future of the South plant is forthcoming. This production action is subject to the formal approval of incentives by state and local entities.
Kaptur continued: "The auto industry is the industrial backbone of Toledo, of northern Ohio, of the Midwest, and, frankly, the nation. Its recovery, which I was privileged to support and organized for legislatively, even when it was an unpopular position to take, is reflected in the six years of continued sales growth and increased revenue data. Slowly and surely, Toledo and northern Ohio's future is being reshaped and reinforced by announcements like the one FCA is making today. When given a fair chance, we will compete and we will win.”
* * *
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is a story published Thursday by the Rockford Register Star in Rockford, Ill.:
Fiat Chrysler's Belvidere plant gets $350M, 300 jobs to retool for Jeep Cherokee
By Adam Poulisse
Rockford Register Star, Ill. (TNS)
BELVEDERE, Ill. — A $350 million investment and 300 new jobs are coming to Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s plant here as the company retools for Jeep Cherokee production.
Fiat Chrysler made the announcement at 4 p.m. today.
The plant now produces Dodge Dart, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot models. Production of Darts will end in September, and Compass and Patriot production will cease in December.
Speculation that the Jeep Cherokee would move to Belvidere started last fall. Automotive News reported that Cherokee production would be phased out at a plant in Toledo, Ohio. In May, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in Turin, Italy, that the hot-selling Cherokee would be made in Belvidere.
Fiat Chrysler is betting that gas prices remain low in coming years. So it is investing in trucks and SUV production instead of smaller vehicles. Last year 220,000 Jeep Cherokees were sold. Marchionne said in May that he chose Belvidere because he needed a plant that could produce 300,000 cars a year.
The announcement "sounds extremely significant," Terrinoni said, and it's "most appreciated having that kind of investment in the community."
Fiat Chrysler says the 5-million-square-foot Belvidere plant employs 4,500 people.
Companies that supply parts and components for the Belvidere plant, clustered in commercial spaces in and around the plant, employ hundreds more. They operate in warehouses that schedule parts shipment to coincide with vehicle production.
The model change will mean a change in the supplier base and a scramble for real estate for inbound suppliers.
"There has been a lot of interest in Boone County and the Belvidere area from companies that normally supply Fiat Chrysler US," said Jarid Funderburg, executive director of Growth Dimensions, the economic development agency for Belvidere and Boone County.
"I think that is anticipated with any line change."
Funderburg said much of the real estate shopping has been done by site selectors hired by companies to find them property and/or buildings.
"If they can’t find a good home in Belvidere, I sure hope they find it as close as possible in Winnebago County," he said.
The auto assembly plant is a regional economic powerhouse.
Jimsi Kuborn, vice president of investor relations for the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, said a government study found that for every 100 jobs created at the Belvidere plant, 46 additional second- and third-tier jobs are created. And every $1 million in output at the plant results in $322,000 output by other industries in the region
"It’s a great win for Belvidere and Boone County," Kuborn said, who noted 55 percent of plant employees live in Winnebago County.
Boone County Board Chairman Bob Walberg said he's looking forward to what it will bring to the county, and the region.
"Typically, all the (employees) don't reside in Belvidere or Boone County. We should get a significant portion of (them)," Walberg said. "It'll certainly add to our community. They'll be bringing paychecks home to spend in our community."
Nuns aim to ‘mend gaps’ in society
By: Mike Sigov, The Blade
July 17, 2016
The Nuns on the Bus stopped Saturday in Toledo on their way to the Republican and Democratic parties’ presidential nominating conventions and called on area people to appeal to politicians to help bridge economic and social gaps in American society.
“I urge you to join us in mending these gaps,” bus rider Sister Simone Campbell of Washington, executive director of Network, said. “Our nation needs it. Your community needs it. We certainly need it to bring all of our people along.”
A project of Network, which lobbies and advocates for Catholic social justice, the nuns gather peoples’ stories of hardship in order to help narrow income and opportunity gaps in society and make it more inclusive. Saturday’s visit was the group’s third to Toledo.
Speaking at a 90-minute rally in International Park, the nuns asked the 100 or so rally participants — many of them area social activists — to sign pledge cards in support of their endeavor.
“Come the new Congress, we are going to take the [pledge cards] to whoever is your senator elected in this election and say, ‘We were here in Ohio and we know that the people are committed to mending the gap,’ and then give them the pledge card and say, ‘Will you sign up and join us in mending the gap’?” Sister Simone said. “I can hardly wait.”
George Tucker, 74, of Sylvania Township, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Northwest Ohio AFL-CIO, was among the first to grab a pledge card.
“[I am here] to mend the gap,” Mr. Tucker said. “As far as speaking for labor, I believe the only way we can do that is with good labor presence and good contracts to bring people back from poverty and to see to it that the middle class doesn’t go down to poverty.”
Themed “Mend the Gaps: Reweaving the Fabric of Society,” the nuns’ bus tour includes 23 cities in 13 states, and is spearheaded by about 20 Catholic sisters, including Sister Simone, their leader, according to rally organizers. Nearly half that many bus riders climbed on the podium to line up behind Sister Simone as she urged event participants to sign the pledge cards.
Rally organizers said their goal was to remind people in the greater Toledo area “in an election year when fear, intolerance, and bigotry have become common political conversation” that they are stronger together.
Speakers at the event included U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Ohio), who praised the nuns’ effort.
After the rally, the touring group was to hold a “Caucus to Mend the Gaps” at 7 p.m. at Monroe Street United Methodist Church, 3613 Monroe St.
The nuns are scheduled to attend Mass today at the Sylvania Franciscan convent after overnighting there. They are then to travel to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, which begins Monday, followed by the Democratic National Convention next week in Philadelphia.
Along the way, Network spokesmen said, the nuns will gather the stories of people caught in the social and economic gaps and then share those stories with politicians at the conventions and then in Washington. They will advocate for economic policies focused on tax justice, living wages, family-friendly workplaces, as well as access to democracy, health care, housing, and citizenship, as the defining issues for the 2016 elections.
“In order for all of us to truly overcome the oppression that involves all people, we must be unified,” Julian Mack of Toledo, a 31-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, said after filling out a pledge card while the rally concluded. “And more than anything else, I believe this event represents the unity that it takes for us to overcome all types of oppression that affects all types of people.”
Relief Abounds as Lorain Learns of Job-Saving Fire Grant
By: Katherine Nix, The Chronicle-Telegram
July 14, 2016
LORAIN — JoAnne Moon cried Wednesday morning.
She said she couldn’t stop when she and other city officials learned that Lorain would receive a federal grant that would allow 22 laid-off firefighters to return to work.
“I can’t seem to stop crying,” Moon, councilwoman for the city’s 5th Ward, said at the Central Fire station on Broadway where city officials and firefighters were told the news. “I’ve done quite a bit of praying on this and I’m so glad it came through. We really needed this as a city and I’m glad to know our residents will be safe again.”
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur confirmed the department received the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant through a videoconference with Mayor Chase Ritenauer, Fire Chief Tom Brown and Lorain Firefighters Local 267 President Ken Shawver.
“Thank you so much for your efforts and in serving your community,” Kaptur, D-Toledo, said. “You have been diligent in your lifesaving efforts, making a case for your city and as such Lorain will be receiving a SAFER Grant from the federal government.”
The city of Lorain laid off the 22 firefighters July 1, resulting in low staffing and slower than normal response times, in light of a $3.6 million budget deficit, which city officials blame in part on a declining steel industry.
The grant will save all 22 jobs for two years.
“This is great news and I want to get these guys back onto trucks as quickly as possible, which could be as early as the end of this week,” Ritenauer said. “This is finally some good news for the city of Lorain.”
Kaptur said the grant is worth a little over $3.1 million and is expected to last through 2018.
Brown said while he’s looking toward the future, which could potentially include a fire levy issue on the November ballot, he’s relieved that the grant money is being made available to his department.
“I was getting misty-eyed when I was listening to the congresswoman speak,” he said. “We’ve been under a lot of stress here and there’s been a lot of juggling that’s resulted in poor decisions being made. Now it’s time to look forward and look at levy options.”
According to a revenue proposal Ritenauer submitted to City Council, the levy would be a 1.7-mill property tax levy that would cost taxpayers an additional $60 per year per $100,000 of property owned.
“I also want to see some parameters in this levy proposal as to what the money can be used for,” Brown said. “I want it to say ‘This is what we’re going to do and there are no exceptions.’ ”
Shawver said he’s also excited about grant money but he’s gearing up for a levy campaign and in order to get a fire levy on the November ballot, the paperwork must be submitted to the Lorain County Board of Elections the first week in August.
“I’m ready to go out and get a levy going so this doesn’t happen again in two years,” firefighter Chris Cotterill said.
Cotterill was one of the firefighters laid off.
“I’m just so grateful that this grant came through,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”
The grant is awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, and “was created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase the number of trained, ‘front line’ firefighters available in their communities.”
According to FEMA’s website, the ultimate goal of the grant is to give local departments the ability to comply with staffing, response and operational standards in National Fire Protection Association 1710 and 1720.
During the layoff period, the Lorain Fire Department struggled with one of the standards in NFPA 1710 — a two in/two out standard that says for every two firefighters that enter a hazardous situation, two others must be removed from the situation and be ready to go in as backup.
While the NFPA standards are simply guidelines and aren’t written into law, the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, has a similar policy in place that is mandatory for private fire departments.
Joe Margetiak, the assistant Toledo-area director for OSHA, said the agency only has the ability to regulate private companies unless a state chooses to also adopt the mandates for public entities and Ohio does not have such a state plan through the agency itself. Currently, 28 states have these state plans, which mean 28 states have local governments abide by the same employment standards OSHA requires.
However, the Ohio Public Employment Risk Reduction Program — the equivalent of OSHA for public workers — has adopted the OSHA standard of “two in/two out” just like NFPA, meaning the department must follow them or face ramifications if things go awry.
Ritenauer said the grant doesn’t solve all the city’s woes, but it is welcomed.
Ritenauer’s revenue proposals included several short- and long-term solutions, including the proposed fire levy, making changes to the city’s trash collection to make it more cost-effective, reducing the city’s income tax credit, charging for street lights, raising income tax rates and changing income tax collection from the city treasurer’s office to the Regional Income Tax Agency to save money.
“There are several ideas currently on the table but we have to pick the combination that’s best for our city moving forward,” Ritenauer said. “There’s a lot of work that can be done in the next two years to make sure we don’t hit this position again.”
The Finance and Claims Committee is expected to discuss Ritenauer’s proposals at a meeting Tuesday night.