October 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Two federal courts have issued rulings putting a hold on U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ latest scheme to divert taxpayer aid away from public schools and toward private institutions.  

The legal challenges target a provision in the main pandemic relief measure, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which contained a section directing a portion of the federal aid to private schools based on the number of disadvantaged children they enroll. DeVos altered this formula, which has been used in other contexts for decades, to direct the aid to private schools based on the total number of students they enroll, whether those students meet the definition of disadvantaged or not.  

The result of this would have been much more taxpayer aid flowing to private schools – and it would have come at the expense of public schools as well as the indigent and disadvantaged children the aid is meant to serve. 

Several states sued over DeVos’ attempt to unilaterally alter the law, among them Washington state, and a federal court agreed with them. U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein of the Western District of Washington issued an injunction putting the DeVos rules on hold.

Rothstein made it clear that she wasn’t buying DeVos’ attempt to rewrite the longstanding rules. Education Week described her opinion as “blistering,” while Forbes noted that Rothstein spent five pages “crushing” the Trump administration’s position.

The CARES Act, Rothstein wrote in State of Washington v. DeVos, “could hardly be less ambiguous.” She noted that the law “unequivocally and plainly instructed” the U.S. Department of Education to adhere to a “simple, familiar and time-tested formula” for distributing aid to schools and accused DeVos of manufacturing an ambiguity to justify resolving it, thereby thwarting Con­gress’s obvious intent.”  

In late August, Americans United joined a legal brief in a similar lawsuit filed by the NAACP. The case, NAACP v. DeVos, challenges DeVos’ diversion of critical COVID-19 relief funds to private, mostly religious schools. The suit, filed on behalf of public school parents and school districts, argues that DeVos’ proposed action would drastically reduce resources and support for underserved public school students.  

U.S. District Judge Dabney Fried­rich ruled against the DeVos plan on Sept. 4, and ordered it blocked nationwide. Friedrich, an appointee of President Donald Trump, called De­Vos’ proposal “contrary to the unambiguous mandate of the [CARES] Act. And the Act provides neither express rulemaking authority nor any ambiguity.” 

Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, hailed the ruling.  

“Our schools are already devastated by COVID-19, and the CARES Act funding is supposed to help those schools who really need the funding,” he told WHNT-TV in  Huntsville, Ala. “We believe everyone should have equal access to a quality public education.”  

Facing back-to-back courtroom losses, the U.S. Education Department early last month dropped its effort to enforce DeVos’ rule change, but that doesn’t mean DeVos and Trump are giving up on pushing voucher plans and other schemes to funnel massive amounts of tax aid to private schools – most of which are religious.

A recent report by Americans United detailed how the Paycheck Protection Program, another aspect of the coronavirus relief package, was used to channel billions to private schools, even though many of these institutions are wealthy and have large endowments. (The report can be read at: www.au.org/tags/ ­paycheck-protection-program.)  

Senate Republicans also unveiled a new coronavirus relief package that was studded with various proposals steering tax aid to private schools. On Sept. 10, the measure failed to advance in that body.

On its “Wall of Separation” blog, Americans United pointed out that public schools serve 90% of America’s children, and that Americans have made it clear over and over again that they support our public schools and don’t favor the privatization boondoggles backed by Trump and DeVos.