News in Brief: A Washington Roundup

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Direct-Loan Consolidations Halted

Because of a backlog of applicants seeking to combine their various college-loan payments into one monthly bill, the Department of Education has temporarily stopped accepting applications for its Federal Direct Loan Consolidation Program.

Although the department has stopped accepting new consolidation applications for an undetermined amount of time, it will continue to process its current backlog of 70,000 applications while it works to iron out the kinks in the consolidation program, said Elizabeth Hicks, the department's deputy assistant secretary for student financial assistance programs.

Direct student loan consolidation is available not only for direct loans, but for Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) and other federal student loans.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan who chairs the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, has requested that the department explain the circumstances leading to the backlog and how it plans to remedy the situation.

"Due to this shutdown, tens of thousands of students will be left in limbo," Mr. Hoekstra said in a written statement.

Students wishing to consolidate loans through FFEL, the department's largest financial aid program, may still do so.

Ed. Dept. Awards Star Schools Grant

The Department of Education has awarded nearly $2 million to a rural state consortium to help improve education through distance learning and other uses of technology.

The department issued the grant to the Pacific Star Schools Partnership, made up of schools in Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington state, as well as several U.S. territories.

The money will be used to pay for classes in foreign languages, math, science, and adult literacy, as well as professional development for teachers.

"In rural areas like Montana, distance learning does a lot to level the educational playing field," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

The future of the Star Schools program--an Education Department initiative that finances instruction through distance learning technologies--is in doubt, however.

The House version of the fiscal 1998 education, labor, and health and human services appropriations bill would cancel funding for the program.

The Senate bill would hold the initiative to its current appropriation of $30 million. The two chambers were debating their appropriations bills late last week.

Created in 1988, the Star Schools program has worked with more than 5,000 schools in 48 states, according to the Education Department.

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