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Court halts Education Department’s rule for pandemic relief money to private schools

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CNA Staff, Aug 29, 2020 / 03:56 pm MT (CNA).- A federal judge has blocked a rule by the Department of Education for allocating pandemic relief money to private schools.

U.S. District Judge James Donato in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against the rule Thursday. He said the Education Department had exceeded its authority in issuing guidelines for funding distribution beyond what Congress had authorized.

The money, part of the CARES Act approved by Congress to help ease the economic impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, was set aside to be distributed to local educational agencies.

The Education Department issued an interim final rule directing local educational agencies to allot money equitably for students in private schools.

In July, several states filed a lawsuit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, saying funding for private schools should be based only on the number of low-income students, not total students, in accordance with Title I restrictions.

DeVos has said that CARES Act programs are not Title I programs and thus not subject to the limitation on use only for low-income students.

“The CARES Act is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers, and families impacted by coronavirus,” she said.

“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.

Furthermore, the department’s rule “discourages the limited number of financially secure private schools from seeking equitable services,” the agency said in its press release.

The interim final rule provides two options for local authorities. The first option requires that if a local education agency uses CARES Act funds for students in all its public schools, it must also allocate funds for all students enrolled in private schools in the district.

Under the second option, if the local agency chooses to use funds only for students in Title I schools, it must calculate funds for equitable services based on either the total number of low-income students in Title I and participating private schools or based on the local agency’s Title I share from the 2019-2020 school year.

However, Judge Donato ruled Thursday that by issuing these guidelines, the agency had created its own allocation rules beyond what Congress directed.

The ruling will halt DeVos’ guidelines from being implemented in California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C., as well as school districts in Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and San Francisco. The injunction is applicable while the full case is being heard in court.

A federal judge reached a similar conclusion in a lawsuit filed by the state of Washington earlier this month.

Paul Long, president and CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference, said Thursday’s ruling “while disappointing, is not unexpected.”

“Clearly the Attorney General went out to California to find a favorable ruling that discriminates against nonpublic schools,” he said in August 27 statement.

“Congress included nonpublic schools in the CARES Act to ensure all students are treated equally, without prejudice due to the school they attend,” Long said, stressing that low and middle-income families in private schools are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic just as those in public schools are.

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