Trump’s Virus Funding Boost for Private Schools Is Blocked

The Trump administration’s move to steer more pandemic relief money to private schools from a $13 billion education fund was blocked by a federal judge.

In a blow to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein in Seattle ruled Friday that changes to CARES Act emergency funding issued by the administration in early July illegally take money away from disadvantaged public schools to give to private schools with more resources and less need. DeVos has been a forceful advocate for private schools during her 3 1/2-year tenure.

The Department of Education, which manages a $64 billion budget, has been mired in controversy over its response to the pandemic, from limiting debt forgiveness for college students to refusing aid for undocumented immigrants.

“Private schools have access to other sources of relief provided by Congress to which public schools do not, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans and benefits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” Rothstein said in her order.

Angela Morabito, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said the agency is following the law.

“Most importantly, our rule treats all students equally,” Morabito said in an emailed statement. “It’s unfortunate that so many favor discriminating against children who do not attend government-run schools.”

The administration’s policy allows private schools to receive millions of dollars more in funding than they received under previous CARES Act guidance, according to complaints filed by attorneys general from several states. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also sued to block the policy.

The state and local officials claim DeVos broke with the original guidance in March for the CARES Act, which allowed private schools to receive some funding for personal protective equipment, online learning programs and other special needs during the pandemic, but only enough to accommodate their low-income students.

The Department of Education later said funding must be allocated based on the overall number of students enrolled in public and private schools, regardless of family income. After a public backlash, the department changed course again on July 1, forcing local school districts to choose between steering all relief funds to their lowest-income schools, or to divvy up the money by total student population.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson accused DeVos of flouting the will of Congress and trying to hijack virus relief funds “to satisfy her own political agenda.”

“Seattle Public Schools would be forced to choose between sending nearly 20% of its CARES Act funds to private schools -- drastically higher than the just over 3% Congress intended -- or deprive 73 of its schools of critical relief funding,” he said in a statement Friday.

A federal judge in San Francisco is also weighing a request to block the policy.

The cases are State of Washington v. DeVos, 20-cv-01119, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington (Seattle) and State of Michigan v. DeVos, 20-cv-04478, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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