A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has struck down a controversial rule championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that required public schools to direct more of their coronavirus relief funds to private school students.
Public education and civil rights groups have argued the CARES Act equitable services rule siphons needed resources away from public schools at a time when state and local funding concerns are threatening their ability to maintain staff and operations. Plaintiffs in this case, led by the NAACP, argued that DeVos violated the intent of Congress when they drafted the relief bill by introducing the additional regulation.
In a Sept. 4 ruling, federal District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich became the third federal judge to rule against DeVos on the issue. But, unlike the previous preliminary orders, issued by courts in California and Washington, Friedrich’s summary judgment applies nationwide.
“In the end, it is difficult to imagine how Congress could have been clearer,” Friedrich wrote, rejecting the Education Department’s argument that it had authority to draft the regulation.
The rule, which the department officially released on July 1, governs virus relief money in the CARES Act. It directs schools to set aside money for what’s known as “equitable services” for all local private school students, if they want to use the remaining money for all their local public schools. That’s a departure from how federal law typically handles those services, which are normally provided to disadvantaged and at-risk students in private schools. Read more background on equitable services here.
DeVos and top department officials have justified the rule by saying that the CARES Act is clearly intended to benefit all students, since all students have been hurt by the pandemic.
Courts typically defer to federal agencies’ interpretations in the case of “vague terms, contradictory provisions, or ‘inartful drafting.’” But this “is not one of those cases,” Friedrich wrote in an expedited judgment in the case, saying that Congress spoke “with clarity and precision” when it outlined how the CARES Act funds should be distributed.
DeVos has not said if she will appeal the Friday order.
Education groups that opposed the funding rule said the ruling provides needed clarity for public schools in deciding how to spend CARES Act funds.
The win in DC on equitable services is so important. It provides a national dismissal of the regulation. With a 5th COVID bill stalled, districts have been hamstrung in trying to spend CARES funding because they didn’t know the portion of $ to give to privates. Now they do!
— Sasha Pudelski (@SPudelski) September 5, 2020
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)