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Explained: How Betsy DeVos is robbing public schools of desperately needed COVID-19 aid

This is a time of crisis for public schools. States and municipalities are facing huge budget shortfalls due to reduced tax revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cost-cutting measures that are sure to follow will hit our public schools hard.

At the same time, public schools are being asked to do more with less, such as ensuring children continue to learn during school closures, have access to technology, and receive nutrition and social and emotional supports – all with insufficient guidance and support from the federal government.

Public schools serve the vast majority of children across the country, and they need our support – and the support of all levels of our government – now more than ever. They must be equipped with the resources to eliminate educational inequities and support children and families disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

But instead of marshaling support for our nation’s public schools, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is using this national crisis as an excuse to further her political agenda in favor of private schools, robbing public schools of desperately needed COVID-19 aid. DeVos’ Department of Education has directed school districts to share their coronavirus relief money with local private schools at much higher levels than the law allows, while ignoring pushback from educators, lawmakers and education law experts.

Today, the NAACP, public school families and school districts filed a lawsuit seeking to block DeVos’ illegal rule and keep public money in public schools. The plaintiffs are represented by Public Funds Public Schools partners Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Education Law Center.

Education policy is complicated, and it’s in DeVos’ interest to keep her harmful mandate shrouded in confusing language. So, in simple terms, what’s the issue with DeVos and the Department of Education’s new rule? In short, it forces school districts to comply with one of two illegal options in spending their share of the $13.5 billion in emergency relief for education that Congress included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), passed in March. Here’s how:​

  • The CARES Act requires districts to apportion funds for private school services “in the same manner” as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the country’s primary piece of federal education legislation. Under the ESEA, school districts that receive Title I funding (money for schools serving students from low-income families) are required to reserve a certain amount of that money to provide “equitable services” to students in local private schools.
  • This amount is calculated based on the number of local private school students who come from low-income families. For example, if there were 100 students who live in a school district’s service area attending private schools, but only 10 of those students were from low-income families, the district would calculate the amount of funding to reserve based on those 10 students, not the 100 total private school students.

But DeVos’ new rule mandates that districts either:

  • Allocate CARES Act funds for private school students based on all students enrolled in private school, which includes students from affluent families – diverting significant funding away from public schools; or
  • Allocate these funds based on the number of students from low-income families at private schools (the same as under ESEA), but face severe restrictions on how the rest of the district’s CARES Act funds can be used. For example, districts choosing this option would be prohibited from using these funds to serve any students who do not attend Title I schools, even students from low-income families. At a time when many districts are facing huge budget cuts, this inability to be flexible with their funding could prove devastating.

Both of these options violate the clear language and intent of the CARES Act.

Public schools play an essential role in the lives of families and communities – and this has been clearer than ever during the pandemic. These schools now need more, not fewer, resources. DeVos’ political agenda of funneling taxpayer dollars to private schools must be stopped. Today’s lawsuit is the first step to holding DeVos and her Department of Education accountable.

You can read more about the lawsuit here, or read the full complaint here.

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