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The White House promised a memo on Biden’s authority to cancel student debt. Where is it?

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WASHINGTON — At the beginning of April, White House chief of staff Ron Klain gave proponents of student debt cancellation a glimmer of hope when he announced President Joe Biden had asked the Education Department to prepare a memo examining his legal authority to wipe out debt through executive action.

“Hopefully we’ll see that in the next few weeks,” Klain said at the time. “And then he’ll look at that legal authority, he’ll look at the policy issues around that, and then he’ll make a decision. He hasn’t made a decision on that either way. In fact, he hasn’t yet gotten the memos that he needs to start to focus on that decision.”

The White House has tied Biden’s policy approach to student debt relief to the Education Department’s memo, but nearly two months since Klain’s comments, it is unclear when the department’s review will be completed. Advocates for student debt cancellation say they have been left in the dark on the timeline of the memo and are growing increasingly concerned that the administration is not willing to engage seriously on the issue.

“We’re all of the belief that when someone says ‘a few weeks,’ it’s definitely not two months. It’s taking too long,” said Braxton Brewington, a spokesperson for the Debt Collective, a union of debtors who have advocated for widespread student loan cancellation.

“We believe that it is a stall tactic,” Brewington added.

When asked for an update on the timeline of the memo, a White House official said: “The president believes that student loans help finance a path to opportunity, not become a lifelong burden, and so White House staff continues to work with agency staff to explore debt relief action that can be taken administratively.”

The Department of Education was also unable to provide a status of the review.

“We are working closely with the Department of Justice and the White House as quickly as possible to review all options regarding student debt cancellation,” said a spokesperson for the Education Department. The memo is being prepared with the Justice Department, with the Education Department taking the lead.

“We haven’t been told it’s not happening, but we are trying to investigate,” Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, said.

“We want to have a timeline,” she added. “There’s a frustration among student loan borrowers, for sure.”

It is unclear if the public will be notified once the review is completed or if the memo will ever be made public.

The lack of transparency from the Biden administration, advocates say, has been compounded by the looming Sept. 30 deadline when student loan forbearance is set to expire. Proponents of debt cancellation are urging the White House to take action before then and, at the very least, communicate clearly with borrowers about the administration’s intended policies so no one is caught off guard if payments are ultimately due again this fall.

“Many borrowers, especially newer student loan borrowers who never went into repayment, almost expect [the payment pause] to be extended,” Abrams said. “They need to notify borrowers as soon as possible.”

Neither the White House nor the Education Department has said whether the administration is seriously considering extending the forbearance. Earlier this month, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said extending the pause was “not out of the question, but at this point it’s Sept. 30.”

Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, said the Education Department’s memo was “overdue” and called for more “transparency and communication in this process.”

“Our hope is that the policymakers will coordinate and communicate with borrower advocacy groups, and I think that is a big frustration. And a lot of folks don’t feel like they’re being heard in this process,” Yu said.

In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which paused federal student loan payments through September 2020 and kept interest rates at 0 percent for the roughly 42 million federal borrowers in an effort to alleviate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Then, President Donald Trump took executive action to extend the student loan payment deferral through January 2021, and Biden on his first day in office signed an executive order extending the payment pause through Sept. 30, 2021.

As the Sept. 30 date draws near, advocates say they are planning to ramp up pressure on the White House to engage more meaningfully with calls from Democrats — led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — for Biden to cancel $50,000 of federal student debt via executive action.

Democrats and other proponents of canceling student debt argue that the president has the authority to cancel student loans under the Higher Education Act of 1965, which gave the education secretary broad authority over student loans. Biden has already exercised that authority, proponents of debt cancellation argue, by pausing student loan payments during the coronavirus pandemic. Several lawyers and legal scholars have written analyses in support of that view.

Biden has said he supports signing a bill passed by Congress eliminating $10,000 in student debt, but he has expressed significant reservations about taking executive action on debt cancellation. He has also indicated that he thinks $50,000 is too generous and would primarily benefit people with expensive private college degrees.

The Federal Reserve estimates that in the third quarter of 2020, Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in student loans. Studies show that students of color are more likely to take on student debt and disproportionately struggle to pay it back. The highest default rates are among students who attended for-profit institutions.

“This is something the president can do,” Warren said during a Washington Post event earlier this month. “Leader Schumer and I are pushing hard to try to get it done.”



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Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in closely watched Virginia gubernatorial race

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President Joe Biden traveled a few miles across the Potomac River on Friday evening to stump for former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is in a crucial race to retake his old job.

It was Biden’s first in-person campaign event appearance since becoming president — one in which an estimated 3,000 supporters gathered in a park in Arlington, some without masks, as the president reminded the crowd about the state of the pandemic.

“I know folks are watching the number of cases rising again and are wondering what it means for them. Well here’s the truth. If you’re fully vaccinated, you’re safer with a higher degree of protection but if you’re not vaccinated, you are not protected,” he said, touting Virginia’s progress in getting shots in arms.

“It’s not about red states or blue states or guys like that. It’s about life and it’s about death.”

Virginia chooses its governors in off-year elections, which usually attract only the most enthusiastic voters. But McAuliffe’s race is perceived to be competitive, and Biden, highlighting his administration’s achievements, made clear that the nation is watching.

“I mean this, not just for Virginia, but for the country. The country is looking. These off-year elections, the country is looking,” he said. “This is a big deal.”

McAuliffe overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination to return to his old job in June, setting up a general election in November against Republican Glenn Youngkin. Both political parties are watching the contest, largely as an early test of the nation’s political climate a year after the tumultuous 2020 presidential race and a year ahead of the crucial midterm congressional elections.

Biden won 54 percent of the vote in Virginia in 2020, defeating former President Donald Trump, who got 44 percent in a state that was once highly competitive but where the Democrats’ advantage grew during the Trump era.

Trump has endorsed Youngkin, a former private equity executive, after he was nominated from a seven-candidate field through a party convention.

Biden used his speech to tie Youngkin tightly to the former president.

“Terry and I share a lot in common: I ran against Donald Trump, and so is Terry,” Biden quipped. “And, I whipped Donald Trump in Virginia, and so will Terry. I tell you what: The guy Terry’s running against is an acolyte of Donald Trump, for real.”

Biden was most impassioned when discussing veteran hospitals that are helped by his American Rescue Plan — hammering the lectern. Virginia has one of the largest active-duty military populations in the country.

“No veteran — from my son, who passed away, on— should pick up a phone and say, ‘I need help,’ and [they] say, ‘We can’t see you for a while,'” he said. “We owe them immediate action. It’s a sacred obligation.”

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Republicans newly alarmed by critical race theory see bans as ‘more of a preventative’

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At the beginning of the year, Texas state Rep. Steve Toth thought his bill to prevent schools from teaching concepts of systemic racism was dead in the water.

But by the end of April, Toth, a Republican, said things had changed. That month, a Texas grand jury indicted two school board members in Southlake, an affluent Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, who supported new diversity and inclusion training requirements for students and teachers. (They were accused of violating the state open meetings law.) Then there were reports of an elementary school in the wealthy Dallas suburb of Highland Park recommending the picture book “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness” to students.

“All of a sudden, you start hearing from parents across the state of Texas that, ‘Oh, my God. This is going on in our school. This is going on in our district,'” Toth told NBC News. “And they’re alarmed over it.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed Toth’s legislation into law in June, making it one of a handful of the more than 20 similar bills introduced across the country to cross the finish line. Republican efforts to ban what conservatives have labeled “critical race theory” comes amid the debate around teaching about race and racism that followed George Floyd’s murder last year and the largest outcry over racial justice in decades.

Yet there is scant evidence that CRT itself — an academic area of study that examines the modern-day impact of systemic racism in law and society — is actually being taught in K-12 schools, and six lawmakers who authored or sponsored anti-CRT legislation told NBC News their efforts are mostly pre-emptive. In interviews, they took issue with the idea that racism is embedded in all aspects of American society, in part because they did not see evidence of widespread racial tensions growing up.

“I don’t know why there’s such a rush right now to burn everything down and to make everything about race,” Toth said. “It’s not always about race. Sometimes it’s about race. And there’s a cry now to say that there is institutional racism everywhere — all aspects of our economy, of our school system, our education system, of the family unit. It’s all based on white structure. It’s just, it’s not true.”

Teachers have said these bills are already having a chilling effect on their lessons, with some becoming leery of what could be considered crossing the line. Experts said the legislative rush comes in response to a movement to disrupt the old way of educating children about race that people of color, at least, have long said is insufficient — a system they said served to inform these lawmakers’ own views.

“My suspicion is that when it comes to being schooled in the history of race and racism and white supremacy in our various homes and the manifestations of injustice in this country, a lot of our elected officials have been miseducated and don’t know,” said Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at University of Houston–Downtown and co-editor of “Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines.”

In defining critical race theory, lawmakers are at odds with those who study it

Born out of legal scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s, critical race theory involves studying the lasting effect of institutional racism and its impact on day-to-day life.

An NBC News report last month detailed a coordinated conservative campaign seeking to cast the area of study as racist — an idea that seeks to make white people feel “guilty” — that began shortly after President Joe Biden in late January reversed a Trump administration order that barred the federal government and its contractors from conducting diversity training it deemed “divisive.” It was around the start of that campaign when many of the state lawmakers, they said, started learning about CRT, which has often been used as a catch-all phrase encompassing diversity trainings and other anti-racist efforts criticized by conservatives.

State lawmakers have, for the most part, avoided using the phrase “critical race theory” in the text of their legislation. A number of the bills, which include similar language and provisions, would prohibit teaching “that one race or sex is inherently superior to another,” that the U.S. “is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist” as a country or anything that provokes feelings of “discomfort, guilt or anguish” because of their race or sex.

Kentucky GOP state Rep. Lynn Bechler, who sponsored his state’s legislation barring what conservative think tanks and lawmakers have identified as the “tenets” of critical race theory, defined the concept as “the philosophy that one race is superior to another.”

“That by the color of your skin rather than what you have done makes you either oppressed or an oppressor,” Bechler, 75, added. “And I think that trying to define color of skin as being oppressed, just because you’re not a white person is an insult to those who aren’t white. It implies to me that the only way to get ahead is to have racism on your own side.”

Other lawmakers said arguments over what constitutes “critical race theory” were missing the forest for the trees.

Idaho state Rep. Wendy Horman, a Republican who wrote her state’s legislation, said, “This is a much bigger issue to me than one particular theory.” In Oklahoma, Republican state Rep. Kevin West, an author of his state’s legislation, said, “At least for me, it was much more important to look at what is getting into the classroom, regardless of what you call it.”

Most Americans have no opinion or have never heard of critical race theory, according to a Politico/Morning Consult survey released last month. The poll found Americans about evenly divided on the question of supporting the theory being taught in grade school and college, with roughly 1 in 3 either supporting, opposing or not having an opinion.

‘More of a preventative’

When asked about their own schooling, these legislators, all white and over 50, said the role of race in American society was not discussed much if at all in their classrooms and that their views are shaped more by their experiences growing up — experiences that did not lead them to believe racism was a pervasive issue.

“I will tell you that in my experience, we had no problems,” Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan, a Republican who authored such legislation in his state, said of his education. Ragan, 72, attended a newly integrated high school during the late 1960s in North Carolina and the Air Force Academy in Colorado. He noted that Black and Asian classmates were “two of the best men in my wedding.”

“So I have no problem personally with that,” he said. “And my experience in the education system did not indicate a problem. It has quite honestly become a problem, in my humble opinion, only in the last few decades.”

Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican whowrote legislation in his state, said he attended public school near Detroit at the tail end of the civil rights era and “as far as race issues and so forth, at the time that I was growing up, I think that was somewhat behind us.”

As to the role race plays in society today, Seitz said, “I think everything that we’ve done historically could play a role.”

“But America was based on independence and freedom. Did all people gain that right away? Absolutely not. And that history needs to be taught and it needs to be taught accurately,” he said. “Therefore, we do not repeat that history. “

Educators from diverse backgrounds have long sought to be more inclusive of different perspectives in the teaching of the nation’s history, with the racial justice movement sparked by Floyd’s murder helping to bolster those efforts.

It’s against that backdrop — and changing attitudes toward race in battleground suburban districts that swung for Biden last fall — that many these bills have been filed.

“It’s a tactic that has been employed for a long time in the culture wars — accusing those that are agitating for social justice, racial justice, equality, equity of being racist,” Chism said. “It’s an old trick in the book.”

Teachers said K-12 schools are not requiring or pushing them to teach critical race theory, according to the results of a nationwide survey of more than 1,100 teachers conducted by the Association of American Educators, a nonpartisan professional group for educators, obtained by NBC News. Most respondents expressed opposition to adding the academic approach to their course instruction.

Most of the lawmakers interviewed acknowledged this but said bans were still necessary.

“It’s more of a pre-emptive move,” Bechler said. “My district is not pushing this. There are some others that, while they don’t call it critical race theory, are kind of pushing the envelope on it anyway. From my perspective, it’s more of a preventative.”

In Texas, Senate Republicans have since voted to advance another bill that, among other measures, would strip required lessons on white supremacy.

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Florida asks Supreme Court to let cruise ships sail again

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WASHINGTON — Florida urged the Supreme Court on Friday to block federal Covid restrictions that have vastly cut back the number of cruise ships operating from the state’s ports.

In an emergency appeal, the state said restrictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control have made it very difficult for the industry to get going again, after it was shut down for nearly 16 months.

Federal rules now allow ships to board passengers if cruise lines meet such requirements as setting up Covid testing labs, running test voyages, maintaining social distancing, and establishing onshore housing for quarantining passengers.

The federal government said the rules were necessary with the United States in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that included several deadly outbreaks clustered on cruise ships. “These experiences demonstrated that cruise ships are uniquely suited to spread COVID-19, likely due to their close quarters for passengers and crew for prolonged periods.”

Now is not the time to put the rules on hold, the Justice Department argued, as the government works with the industry to get it going again — noting that the cruise industry did not join Florida’s lawsuit.

But the rules allow only a fraction of the normal number of ships to sail, the state said.

“The CDC’s order is manifestly beyond its authority,” Florida said. The federal law giving the CDC power to enact traditional quarantine measures “does not permit the agency to remake the entire cruise ship industry.”

The state said the restrictions have cost Florida tens of millions of dollars in lost tax and port revenue and required it to meet the additional expensive of paying unemployment benefits to cruise industry employees.

In June a federal court agreed with the state and blocked the CDC restrictions. U.S. District Court Judge Steven Merryday of Tampa, Florida, said the effort to impose the rules was “breathtaking, unprecedented, and acutely and singularly authoritarian.” He said he wondered whether the CDC would have argued that it could ban intercourse to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, put Merryday’s order on hold. Florida’s emergency motion asked the Supreme Court to lift that hold and allow the judge’s ruling to take effect.



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