NAACP Challenges Diversion of Covid Relief to Private Schools

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks to chemistry students during a visit to Forsyth Central High School in Cumming, Ga., on Aug. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration has feigned doubt over how Congress intended to allocate Covid-19 emergency relief to K-12 schools, civil rights groups argued in Washington Friday, challenging a rule they claim unlawfully shortchanges public schools. 

The NAACP, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in July, alleging she diverted from longstanding federal education funding laws by allowing private schools to apply for funds set aside for low-income students.

At issue is over $13 billion earmarked for K-12 education in the CARES Act, rolled out by Congress in March. 

The Justice Department claimed Friday that the statute passed in the frenzy of the early months of Washington’s response to the coronavirus outbreak is ambiguous and open to interpretation. 

But attorney Tamerlin J. Godley rebutted that DeVos’ new rule diverts from long-understood methods of allocating federal funds to schools under Title I, as well as Congress’ intent in the CARES Act. 

“They knew what to do. There was no confusion when the CARES Act was passed,” Godley said, representing the NAACP and SPLC. 

Justice Department attorney William K. Lane relied on the CARES Act mandating that the Education Department “provide equitable services” to private-school students to justify the agency allocating funds to private schools based on their total populations, rather than their number of low-income students. 

But Godley argued equitable services is a term of art used since 1965 when Congress passed Title I to distribute funding to schools with a high percentage of low-income students. 

Furthermore, she urged U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich to recognize the rule at issue is merely an allocation formula for private schools, not a finding of funding eligibility for public versus private schools. 

“[Congress’] allocation is clear,” she said, adding: “This is money primarily intended to benefit struggling public schools.” 

Still, the Justice Department leaned on the argument that private schools are just as in need of federal funds to stay afloat, echoing DeVos’ claim that more than 100 have been forced to close during the pandemic.

“Private schools are hurting as well. Some have closed,” Lane said.

A Trump appointee, Friedrich appeared mildly skeptical of the government’s claim that its interpretation of the CARES Act should be accepted because Congress did not clearly state how to split money between public and private schools. 

The Washington hearing came in the wake of two federal judges issuing preliminary injunctions in similar lawsuits brought in California and Washington state to challenge DeVos’ policy. 

The Justice Department argued Friday that the two opposing rulings were further evidence that the CARES Act language on K-12 funding is ambiguous. 

Friedrich indicated she plans to issue her own ruling within days on whether to temporarily block the Education Department from enforcing the rule. 

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