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A newly proposed bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would grant broad waivers to accreditors aimed at allowing them to bypass federal requirements in order to encourage innovation and to reduce "administrative burdens." Some observers said the legislation could relate to regulatory questions about the faculty role at Western Governors University and at other competency-based education programs.

Rep. Bradley Byrne, an Alabama Republican and former chancellor of Alabama's community college system, introduced the bill. He's a member of the House's education committee. 

The proposed legislation, dubbed the Innovation in Accreditation Act, would amend the Higher Education Act, which is the law that oversees federal aid. It would establish a process for accrediting agencies to ask the U.S. Department of Education to waive requirements under the law if accreditors can successfully demonstrate a waiver is necessary to "enable to an institution of higher education or program accredited by the agency or association to implement innovative practices," according to draft language from the bill. Such innovation must also reduce administrative burdens without creating costs for taxpayers and "improve the delivery of services to students, improve instruction or learning outcomes, or otherwise benefit students."

Accreditors would also need to describe how they would ensure academic integrity and quality under the waiver.

Observers said the bill could be aimed in part at helping Western Governors University cope with the recently released results of a multi-year audit by the department's Office of Inspector General. Citing concerns about the faculty role in WGU's competency-based model, the inspector general labeled the nonprofit, online university a correspondence course provider and asked the department to seek a reimbursement of $713 million in federal aid.

The department is unlikely to follow those recommendations, many experts said. But lingering questions about what constitutes "regular and substantive" interaction between faculty members and students in competency-based programs -- and in online education more broadly -- could result in Congressional action or revised federal regulations.

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions applauded the proposed legislation, saying it addresses real barriers accreditors face and could help colleges better serve students.

"Enabling a process through which the U.S. Secretary of Education may waive barriers to innovation -- as long as accreditors are able to ensure ongoing academic integrity and quality -- is a commonsense way to address technological and other changes that challenge traditional education delivery," Barbara Gellman-Danley, the council's chair and president of the Higher Learning Commission, said in a written statement. "The Byrne bill can make a significant difference in freeing accreditors -- and colleges -- to advance strategies that have proven effective in yielding desired outcomes that otherwise would be prohibited."