- Florida is suing the U.S. Department of Education over college accreditation, asking a judge to block the agency from enforcing federal accreditation requirements against the state's higher education institutions.
- All colleges must be accredited by a federally recognized agency to receive federal funding, such as Pell Grants. The lawsuit, filed in federal court Wednesday, argues that this unconstitutionally privatizes legislative power and makes the standards accreditation agencies set unavoidable.
- “We reject the idea that a totally unaccountable, unappointed, unelected accrediting agency can trump what the state of Florida is doing,” Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a Thursday news conference.
Policy choices like tenure and what to teach have traditionally been left to college officials. But Florida’s elected representatives “have exhibited a desire for greater involvement in the governance of state institutions.” the lawsuit says.
That includes “creating new programs on campus, improving accountability for taxpayer funds, and ensuring institutions stay true to the missions of their charters and focus on the academic success of their students,” according to the complaint.
The policies of the current accreditor for Florida public colleges oppose those goals, it argued.
"Congress has ceded unchecked power to private accrediting agencies to dictate education standards to colleges and universities," the lawsuit said. "Making matters worse, Congress has given accreditors broad power to apply their own standards to colleges and universities, subject only to limited judicial review."
The lawsuit also alleges the legislative branch has banned the Education Department from meaningfully affecting those standards.
"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 Thursday.
Florida's government has routinely fought with the accreditor for its colleges, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a point mentioned in its lawsuit.
In 2021, then-state education commissioner Richard Corcoran was in the running to become the new president of Florida State University. But Florida State dropped him from the finalists’ pool after SACSCOC, along with faculty at the university, raised concerns about Corcoran's qualifications and a potential conflict of interest.
At the time, SACSCOC noted that Corcoran was a member of the state university system’s board of governors, which has the final say over presidential appointments.
Corcoran has since been appointed interim president of the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution.
In 2022, Florida passed a law mandating its public colleges change accreditors every cycle.
In response, the Education Department released guidance that requires colleges to demonstrate "reasonable cause for changing their accrediting agency or for having multiple accrediting agencies," setting up a legal clash with Florida’s law.
The agency explained it would only recognize accreditors whose colleges are voluntarily their members. It argued that Florida’s law mandating colleges to switch accreditors could potentially undermine “the voluntary nature of the relationship.”
Florida isn't the only conservative state to tussle with SACSCOC.
This year, trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought to create a new civics school designed to promote free speech and inquiry. But SACSCOC questioned the "accelerated" plan and if faculty had been properly consulted in the creation process.
Shortly thereafter, state lawmakers introduced a bill, similar to Florida's, that would require colleges to switch accreditors regularly. The legislation has passed the state Senate and is currently being considered in the House.