Maine Attorney General Janet Mills plans to join a lawsuit filed by Democratic attorneys general against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over her decision to suspend rules meant to protect students from abuse by for-profit colleges, a spokesman said Thursday.

“The Borrower Defense Rule came about after Maine and other states brought actions against major for-profit schools who were taking advantage of students, including hundreds of students in Maine,” Mills said in a statement Thursday. “It was clear from that investigation that students needed more protections and this rule was a step in the right direction.”

“If the Department of Education wants to scrap that rule, they need to follow the process set out in law. They have not done that,” said Mills, who announced her candidacy for governor on Monday.

Mills’ spokesman Timothy Feeley said Mills didn’t join the initial filing on July 6 because of the state government shutdown. “We only received the draft complaint hours before the deadline and were not able to give it appropriate review at that time,” he said.

Mills will likely join the lawsuit at the next filing, possibly as soon as next week, he said.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington by Democratic attorneys general from 18 states and the District of Columbia, says DeVos violated rule-making laws when she announced a June 14 decision to delay so-called borrower defense to repayment rules, which were finalized under President Barack Obama and scheduled to take effect July 1.

The lawsuit says DeVos and the Education Department failed to take legally required steps to delay already established rules. It says they failed to open the decision to public comment and failed to provide an adequate legal justification for delaying the rules, among other faults.

In June, the Education Department said it was delaying the rule because a federal court was weighing a lawsuit brought by a California trade group made up mostly of for-profit colleges seeking to block the rules. The department cited a law allowing such a delay for litigation if it’s found “that justice so requires.”

The attorneys general said that justification is “a mere pretext” for repealing and replacing the regulation.

In a separate letter sent to DeVos on Wednesday, Mills and 20 other attorneys general object to her effort to replace those rules, which would have forbidden schools from forcing students to sign agreements that waive their right to sue. Under the rules, defrauded students would have faced a quicker path to get their loans erased, and the schools, not taxpayers, could have been held responsible for the costs.

“We are dismayed by the Department’s decision to cast aside all the hard work and progress achieved during its previous rulemakings, and disheartened that the Department has decided to turn its back on the critical protections it promised to borrowers. This is both a waste of resources and a betrayal of students who count on the Department to protect them from abuse at the hands of predatory schools,” the letter states.

It was signed by attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

The letter also says they oppose the DOE’s efforts to suspend the new “gainful-employment” rule, another hallmark of the Obama administration that was set to take effect in July. The regulation would have cut off federal funding to career programs that consistently left students with more debt than they could afford. Data released by the Obama administration in January found that more than 800 programs across the country were failing to meet the rule’s standards.

“These rules are the products of a significant amount of time and effort on the part of numerous stakeholders and the Department. Simply abandoning them is both a waste of Departmental resources and an injustice for the students these Rules were designed to protect,” the letter states.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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