Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is among a group of attorneys general suing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over a policy requiring public school districts to split their coronavirus relief funds with private school students.
Nessel is partnering with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead a coalition of states in pursuing the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesdayin the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Nessel said DeVos has “erroneously and unlawfully”misinterpreted language in the federal CARES Act and disregarded the clear intentions of Congress with a new rule, resulting in the “dilution” of the amount of federal education aid available to public schools in Michigan by at least $16 million.
Congress intended for school districts to share coronavirus funding with low-income students attending private schools in their districts, Nessel said. DeVos has maintained that the CARES Act does not restrict the aid to only poor students and that all private school students are potentially eligible for the aid.
“Unfortunately, this most recent action by Secretary DeVos is really just another example in a long history of an administration that uses any and every opportunity available to tip the scales in favor of private schools at the great expense of our public schools,” Nessel said.
“But all students in this country deserve an equal chance at an education. That is why we cannot and will not sit on the sidelines while critical funding specifically allocated based on low-income status is allowed to be reallocated by counting students who have privileges and resources already available to them.”
The six-count complaint is asking a federal judge to declare DeVos’s rule and guidance for public school districts unlawful and that the U.S. Department of Education be enjoined from enforcing it.
“Michigan kids simply cannot afford for Betsy DeVos to play politics with their education,” Nessel said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said under the DeVos rule, private schools and affluent school districts might receive services intended for disadvantaged districts.
“The DeVos rule strips dollars away from schools in need of the critical funding,” Whitmer said.
The CARES Act money is targeted for 12 purposes, mostly related to the coronavirus outbreak, such as for personal protective equipment and technology for remote learning, according to the Nessel’s office.
Part of the cash is Title I money that is supposed to be targeted at low-income students. Under the DeVos rule, a portion of the CARES money must be given to private schools based on the number of low-income students.
Michael Rice, the state superintendent of public instruction, said under the state’s reading of the law, non-public schools would receive $5.1 million.
But under DeVos’s new guidance, the nonpublic schools would receive $21.6 million — a $16.5 million difference.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District and Grand Rapids School District under DeVos’ rule would each receive $2.6 million less in funding, Nessel said. Flint Public Schools would lose $1.4 million in aid.
“This isn’t just a concern for urban or large school districts,” the attorney general said. “This is a concern for all our school districts, and because of the anticipated financial challenges that face our state in the months and years ahead, we must fight for every single dollar available for education.”
The other states joining Michigan and California in the lawsuit are Maine, New Mexico and Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia.
Nessel announced the legal action at a Lansing news conference as Whitmer administration officials have been lobbying Congress for money to fill a $3.2 billion budget shortfall in the current budget and a $3 billion hole in next year’s budget.
The shortfall for public schools is at least $1 billion in both fiscal years related to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
The CARES Act, adopted in March, targeted $30.75 billion for K-12 schools and higher education amid the pandemic with $13 billion sent to state education agencies like the Michigan Department of Education, which got nearly $390 million, according to Nessel’s office.
State agencies then distribute the money to local districts.
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