2 federal judges block DeVos’ plan to give more COVID-19 relief to private schools
Education Department rule would create hardships for public schools in Wisconsin, other states, California judge rules
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WKBT) — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ controversial plan to funnel more COVID-19 federal relief aid to private schools in Wisconsin and several other states became a mole that two judges whacked as illegal during the past week.
A judge in Washington state issued a preliminary injunction Aug. 21 that barred enforcing DeVos’ rule in the Evergreen State and possibly nationwide.
In California, a U.S. district judge’s ruling Wednesday blocked DeVos’ policy in several states, including Wisconsin, California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, as well as for public school districts in Chicago, Cleveland, New York City and San Francisco.
That judge dismissed the department’s defense of its rule as “‘interpretive jiggery-pokery’ in the extreme.”
At issue is how much of the more than $13 billion Congress allocated to K-12 schools in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act should help private schools.
The relief legislation stipulates that some of the money is intended for private schools as “equitable services” such as tutoring.
The law says it should be distributed in the “same manner” as under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which directs that allocations should be based on the share of an area’s low-income students who attend private schools.
But the Education Department rule would channel the allocation based on the share of an area’s total students who attend private schools.
Private schools tend to serve fewer low-income students than nearby public schools, so public school officials and many analysts say that interpretation redirects resources from public schools to private ones.
The Education Department insists that the law is ambiguous, and its interpretation is more fair to private schools.
“Our rule treats all students equally,” department spokeswoman Angela Morabito said in a statement responding to the Washington injunction. “It’s unfortunate that so many favor discriminating against children who do not attend government-run schools.”
DeVos’ critics counter that the rule misreads the law and diverts money improperly away from disadvantaged students in traditional public schools.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Washington state said DeVos’ rule bucks Congress’ intent “under the guise of a manufactured ambiguity.” The policy would deny resources to vulnerable students, she wrote.
“The funding provided throughout the CARES Act, and in particular to schools, is desperately and urgently needed to provide some measure of relief from the pandemic’s harms, many of which cannot be undone,” Rothstein wrote.
It is not clear whether the ruling applies to the country as a whole or just to Washington state, which filed the suit. The attorney general’s office there says it applies nationally, while Education Department attorneys counter that it affects only that state.
Rothstein rejected any wiggle room in the law, writing, “The statute could hardly be less ambiguous.
“Funding can be equitable even if it is not equal, which is certainly the case when Congress chooses to concentrate funding on those in the most need,” she wrote, adding that schools will receive aid under either approach.
Jessica Levin, an attorney with the Education Law Center, which is part of a separate lawsuit against DeVos’ rule, told reporters that districts need clear answers as soon as possible.
“This is a big problem and a big headache for districts across the country,” she said. “They cannot afford to lose any more days in having clarity on how much money they have.”
U.S. District Judge James Donato’s injunction in California said DeVos’ plan is likely to be struck down because she doesn’t have the authority to impose her own conditions on coronavirus relief funding for K-12 schools, according to Politico.
Donato’s order acknowledged that “there is a public interest” in allowing a portion of CARES money to benefit private school students. But “allowing the Department to rewrite the statutory formula for sharing education funds is manifestly not in the public interest,” he wrote.
Donato also underscored arguments from plaintiffs about the “irreparable harm” the rule would cause.
“Wisconsin schools had to choose between diverting over $4 million of CARES Act funding to private schools or abandoning district-wide coronavirus preparation such as sanitizing school buses,” he wrote.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who led the legal challenge, applauded the ruling, tweeting: “Big win for Michigan kids! Thanks to my hardworking staff who argued this important case. #SupportPublicSchools.”
This report includes information from other media.
COPYRIGHT 2020 BY WKBT/News8000.com. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED.