Michigan and California are leading a multistate lawsuit against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, alleging she is wrongfully requiring millions of dollars in coronavirus relief to be sent to private schools.
DeVos’ rules are an unlawful interpretation of the federal COVID-19 relief package, which Congress passed in March, said Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general.
That package provided nearly $31 billion in aid to K-12 schools to help them plug some budget holes caused by the steep drop in state revenue because of the pandemic, and to purchase needed personal protective equipment for students and staff. Nearly $400 million was earmarked for Michigan, with $350 million going directly to local school districts and $40 million to the state education department.
Part of that money would have provided services such as music classes or physical therapy to private school students from low-income families. But DeVos’ interpretation of the formula would mean Michigan schools could lose out on at least $16 million. It could also mean that in some cases, students attending wealthy private schools would receive more aid than students attending less wealthy public schools, Nessel said.
“Public schools are at risk of losing millions and millions in federal funds to their private school neighbors,” she said during a press conference on Tuesday.
She said the Grand Rapids school district would lose $2.6 million, while the Flint school district would lose $1.4 million.
“Michigan kids simply cannot afford for Betsy DeVos to play politics with their education,” she added later.
The suit was filed in a federal court on Tuesday by attorneys general in Wisconsin, Maine, California, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia.
Here’s what Angela Morabito, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, which is also named in the suit, had to say:
“While the Department does not comment on pending litigation, the Secretary has said many times, this pandemic affected all students, and the CARES Act requires that funding should be used to help all students,” Morabito said in a statement. “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.”
The lawsuit comes a day after information released by the federal treasury agency showed dozens of private schools in Michigan received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program. These loans present an additional opportunity for federal relief funds for private and charter schools. The forgivable loans, aimed at maintaining payroll, weren’t available to public school districts. (Chalkbeat is also a nonprofit and received federal paycheck protection funding.)
DeVos, a west Michigan native who for decades has been a big proponent of school choice, said in May that the coronavirus pandemic has offered a chance to advance her longstanding goal of using public dollars to support access to private schools.
“For more than three decades that has been something that I’ve been passionate about,” she said on a radio program. “This whole pandemic has brought into clear focus that everyone has been impacted, and we shouldn’t be thinking about students that are in public schools versus private schools.”
In May, Michigan’s state superintendent, Michael Rice, issued a memo telling school districts to hold off on setting aside extra money for private schools under DeVos’s guidance.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the pandemic has shined a light on the inequities in the public school system. Schools in less affluent areas of the state struggled to provide remote learning because many of their students don’t have the necessary technology to participate. She said the relief package rightly directed money to those types of districts.
“Betsy DeVos … has a different plan,” Whitmer said. “Schools in these areas deserve a government that will support them in this crisis. She doesn’t share our priorities.”
Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said in a statement that she supports the lawsuit.
“At a time when public schools need additional resources, Secretary DeVos is once again using illegal tactics to advance her personal privatization agenda. These funds should do what Congress intended – support the students who need it most.”
Beth DeShone, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said she is discouraged that the state is moving forward with a lawsuit, saying the virus didn’t discriminate based on the kind of schools students attend. She said it ignores the fact that there are private schools that serve disadvantaged students.
“Students across the board in communities have been hit hard by this pandemic,” DeShone said. Students attending private schools, “deserve this as much as their neighbor down the street.”
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