States Sue DeVos Over Covid-Relief Handouts to Swanky Private Schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Accusing the Trump administration of propping up private schools in the pandemic aid sweepstakes, California and four other states sued Tuesday to freeze a plan they claim reduces federal relief meant for cash-strapped public schools.

The coalition says rules approved by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos divert from longstanding federal education funding laws by allowing private schools to apply for aid earmarked for low-income students. In a federal lawsuit, the states claim DeVos’ plan strays from both Title 1 and Congress’ intent when it allocated $13 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for K-12 education.

The move allows private institutions with steep tuition rates to access relief at a time when public schools across the country are buckling due to the coronavirus pandemic, said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“Ultimately, it’s a shakedown of low-income schools across the country,” Becerra told reporters Tuesday.

California is joined in the federal lawsuit by Michigan, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

The states argue guidance issued to local education agencies dictating how CARES Act money should be distributed wrongly limits the ability of public schools with large amounts of poor students to access and use the money.

Congress and President Donald Trump approved the $2 trillion CARES Act in late March and set aside nearly $31 billion for education, including $13 billion for K-12 learning.

In late April, the U.S. Department of Education announced education agencies should apportion funds for “equitable services” using a school’s total number of students rather than just low-income students. DeVos and the department believe the CARES Act equitable funding extends to all students and is not hamstrung by traditional Title 1 provisions. 

“There is nothing in the law Congress passed that would allow districts to discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment,” DeVos said on June 25. “There is no reasonable explanation for debating the use of federal funding to serve both public and private K-12 students when federal funding, including CARES Act funding, flows to both public and private higher education institutions.”

In defense of the rule, DeVos notes many private schools serve low and middle-income families and have experienced financial strain like public schools. She contends more than 100 private schools have been forced to close and that “hundreds more are facing a similar fate.”

Critics fought the change, saying it opens the door for private schools to receive pandemic relief for all of its students as opposed to just the total number of low-income or at-risk students. Despite the pushback, the department published the interim rule and it went into effect July 1.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel claims DeVos’ guidance clashes with Congress’ intent and could cut $16 million available to Michigan public schools.

“At a time when Michigan schools are facing an unprecedented crisis, every single child deserves the chance to succeed,” Nessel said in a statement. “But, yet again, Secretary DeVos has decided to tip the scales in favor of private schools, leaving the state’s public school students behind.”

Filed in the Northern District of California, the 44-page complaint claims the rule violates separation of powers by changing Congress’ intent for the distribution of the education funds. The states also raise ultra vires and Administrative Procedure Act claims and ask the federal court to preliminarily and permanently toss DeVos’ rules. 

As for California, which has now sued the Trump administration 85 times, Becerra warns the rules could redirect millions intended for programs benefitting disabled students, English learners and homeless children to private students coming from wealthy families. He accused the Trump administration of “stealing from the poor to give to the rich” and speculated schools charging $20,000 or more could get a slice of California’s $1.5 billion education share.

“That’s about as much as the average poor-working family in California might earn in an entire year,” Becerra said. “It’s not just sinful, it’s against the law.”

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