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Five States Sue Education Dept. Over CARES Act School Funding

July 13, 2020 by Tom Ramstack

Five states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit this week that accuses the U.S. Education Department of shorting schools in low-income areas on their fair share of coronavirus relief funds.

Instead, too much of the money is going to private and wealthy school districts that do not need the money, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Participating states are California, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

They say the Trump administration is misinterpreting part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) that sets standards for distributing relief funds to schools.

The relevant section of the law specifies how to distribute $30.75 billion for elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities.

The Trump administration uses a formula that distributes the money equally based on the number of students in the schools.

The lawsuit says Congress intended the money to be distributed where the need is greatest, such as to low-income students and their schools.

“The [Education] Department’s interpretation will deprive low-income and at-risk students, their teachers and the public schools that serve them of critical resources to meet students’ educational and social-emotional needs during and after pandemic-related school closures,” the lawsuit says. 

It adds that “the states will also be harmed by the loss of these critical resources at a time of severe crisis.”

When Congress allocated the CARES Act funds in March, it said the money was supposed to be distributed by states to “local educational agencies.”

The states that are suing said that means the money should be considered part of Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Act provides financial assistance to local educational agencies and schools with high numbers of children from low-income families.

However, an interim final rule from the Education Department directs local educational agencies to “provide equitable services to students and teachers in non-public schools” as well as public schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave further explanation of her agency’s intent in a June 25 announcement that said “CARES Act programs are not Title I programs,” which means they are not limited to schools that serve low-income students.

The states’ lawsuit says DeVos is out of step with Congress’ intent.

The Education Department “grafted its own allocation and eligibility rules on Congress’s directive,” the lawsuit says.

State attorneys general who filed the lawsuit directed their own harsh criticism at DeVos.

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

The lawsuit adds to the Education Department woes that put DeVos on the political hot seat this week when she initially threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that do not re-open in-person classes in the fall semester.

On Thursday, two days after making the threat during a Fox News interview, she pulled back amid harsh public criticism from educators, health officials and political leaders.

In a separate interview with Fox News’ Sandra Smith she said, “American investment in education is a promise to our students and families and if schools aren’t going to reopen, we’re not suggesting pulling funding from education, but instead allowing families to take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open.”

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