Tuesday afternoon, the state of Michigan announced during a press conference they will be filing a court-action lawsuit against the federal government and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for the distribution of funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

Along with several other states, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is leading the lawsuit against Devos, citing concerns that a new rule favors affluent private schools over public schools serving low-income students. 

Nessel said The Department of Education’s July 1 rule gives public school districts two options for distributing CARES Act funds.

“Districts can allocate funds based on the total number of students enrolled in an eligible private school, regardless of income level, or allocate funds only for Title I schools, leaving no CARES Act funds available for non-Title I public schools,” Nessel said.

Title I schools receive over $14 billion of federal funding per year to help low-income students reach education goals.

In a June 25 press release, DeVos said the department’s new rule recognized that CARES Act programs are not Title I programs. 

“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,” DeVos said.

However, Nessel noted at the press conference that the rule could divert necessary funding from public schools.

“Public schools in Michigan are at risk of losing millions and millions of dollars in federal funds to their private school neighbors,” Nessel said. “Resources that Congress intended to be allocated based on low-income student enrollment — which is typically much higher in public schools — could instead be redirected to much more affluent public schools because of Secretary DeVos’s actions.”

Nessel said while the CARES Act states districts must provide private schools with equitable services in the same manner as under Title I, Title I only applies to academically at-risk students.

“Secretary DeVos’s rule and guidance ignores plain language in the CARES Act and instead directs local education agencies to choose between two options for allocating CARES Act funds, neither of which actually exists in the CARES Act,” Nessel said.

State Superintendent Michael Rice also noted neither of the methods for allocating funds under DeVos’s rule align with the CARES Act. 

“It puts local school districts and local school district leadership in a very uncomfortable position, having to choose between the plain act language on the one hand, and the guidance from the U.S. Secretary on the other,” Rice said.

Following DeVos’s rule, non-public schools in Michigan would receive $16 million more than if they followed the funding allocations under Title I — money Rice said would be drawn away from public schools.

“This is enough to buy 63,694 Chromebooks for students at $259 per Chromebook, or to buy personal protective equipment for 33,944 students at $486 per student annually,” Rice said. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer noted the CARES Act funding is designed to help those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including low-income communities and communities of color.

“Schools in these areas deserve a government that will support them throughout this crisis,” Whitmer said. “The DeVos rule strips dollars away from schools in need of that critical funding. She doesn't share our priorities for protecting and improving public education, and that’s why today’s action is necessary.”

Attorneys General of California, Maine, Wisconsin, New Mexico and the District of Columbia joined Nessel in the lawsuit filed in the Northern California U.S. District Court Tuesday.

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu. Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.

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