Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Tuesday announced a lawsuit has been filed challenging a rule issued by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos which rerouted millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to private schools.
Nessel is partnering with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead a coalition of six attorneys general in a court action against a rule issued July 1 by the U.S. Department of Education, which the states contend contradicts requirements set out by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The issue turns on how much federal CARES Act money public school districts must share with surrounding private schools, how schools can use those funds, and whether all private school students – including affluent students – may receive services intended by Congress to benefit economically disadvantaged students.
“Secretary DeVos has decided to use this public health crisis as another opportunity to advance her personal privatization agenda,” Nessel said at an afternoon press conference. “Instead of sending relief money to the students most in need as required under the CARES Act, she has abused the Department of Education’s rulemaking power to redirect money to private schools.”
The lawsuit – filed with the support and coordination of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer – shows our state’s leaders are taking action to protect public school students and their families, said MEA President Paula Herbart.
“On behalf of our 120,000 public school employee members, I thank the Governor and Attorney General for challenging DeVos’ shameful backdoor voucher plan to fund private and religious schools during this pandemic,” Herbart said.
CARES Act money is designed to provide support to schools with low-income students. The act directs money to be allocated based on the amount of Title I funding each state and school district received in the most recent fiscal year.
DeVos’s rule, however, says coronavirus relief money should be distributed based on the total number of students in any private school that wishes to participate, and that equitable services must be provided to all students enrolled, even affluent students.
“It’s clear that Betsy DeVos has the wrong priorities when it comes to protecting public education, and it’s time to hold her accountable,” Whitmer said. “Our administration is committed to working with Attorney General Nessel to stand up for Michigan’s students, educators, and families to make sure our tax dollars are supporting public schools.”
DeVos’s interpretation would mean that – in districts with large private school populations – public schools serving low-income students would receive less relief money, which would instead be diverted to their private school peers.
“At a time when Michigan schools are facing an unprecedented crisis, every single child deserves the chance to succeed,” Nessel said. “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 Secretary of Education’s job is to lift up our public schools, not tear them down.”
The CARES Act was adopted by Congress and signed into law in late March. Among many other things, it allocates $30.75 billion for K-12 schools and higher education in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A portion – approximately $13.2 billion – is distributed to State Education Agencies such as the Michigan Department of Education, which gets nearly $390 million to distribute to local districts and schools.
The CARES Act says that districts must provide private school students with equitable services in the same manner as required under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Title I’s formula for private school services requires districts to allocate money based on the number of low-income students in private schools.
The DeVos rule created a formula to distribute the funds in a manner that is inconsistent with the CARES Act and would divert $16 million from public schools to non-public schools, said Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice, who participated in Tuesday’s press conference with Nessel and Whitmer.
“This is unacceptable, particularly in the midst of a pandemic and given a significant decline in state revenue,” Rice said.
Joining Nessel and Becerra on behalf of their states in filing this lawsuit are the attorneys general of the District of Columbia, Maine, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.