Attorney General Dana Nessel and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will square off in court over Trump Administration policy about education funding. Photos by  AP.
Attorney General Dana Nessel and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will square off in court over Trump Administration policy about education funding. Photos by AP.

Attorney General Dana Nessel is leading a coalition of six states in suing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, alleging a misuse of coronavirus relief funds on private schools.

LANSING, MI — Attorney General Dana Nessel is taking Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration to court to protect funding for Michigan’s public schools. 

As The ’Gander previously reported, funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) heavily, disproportionately benefitted private schools. The bill explains that money  was meant for public schools. 

Charter schools, in particular, are a favored project of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Despite statistics provided by Protect our Public Schools showing charter schools underperform in Michigan,  they were still heavily subsidized by CARES funding. 

Infographic by Tania Lili.

On July 1, the Department of Education published a rule giving school districts two options for how to disburse $13.5 billion of CARES funds: either distribute to schools in direst need but impose strict limitations on how the money can be used, or give every school, including private and well-off schools, an equal share of the funding. Neither of those options were spelled out in the CARES Act, which Trump signed into law in March. 

Nessel is partnering with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in leading a coalition of state attorneys general who are suing DeVos. They’re joined by Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. 

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“Once again, our state leaders are standing up for Michigan public school students and their families,” said Michigan Education Association president Paula Herbart. This lawsuit, filed by our state’s outstanding Attorney General Dana Nessel, will help ensure that Betsy DeVos’ plan to funnel public tax dollars to private and religious schools through the CARES Act pandemic funding is stopped.”

Suing Secretary DeVos

In Michigan v. DeVos, Nessel and Becerra argue that DeVos and the Department of Education have misinterpreted the CARES Act to take money out of historically underfunded public school districts and fund private schools. 

“Secretary DeVos is rewriting and exploiting previous U.S. Department of Education guidance to shovel taxpayer dollars to private, for-profit schools,” retired Detroit teacher and Protect our Public Schools Vice President Ellen Offen told The ‘Gander. “She’s manipulated previous guidance to force local school districts to funnel COVID-19 relief funds to private schools in affluent areas that don’t serve low-income students. That’s not how the original guidance was intended.”

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The states will be asking for injunctive relief, preventing the Department of Education from disbursing money intended for public schools to private schools. 

“Secretary DeVos has decided to use this public health crisis as another opportunity to advance her personal privatization agenda,” Nessel said. “The Secretary of Education’s job is to lift up our public schools, not tear them down. Today I’m leading a coalition of six other states to fight DeVos in court and give a voice to our public schools.” 

Department of Education Press Secretary Angela Morabito said that while the department does not comment on pending litigation, “the Secretary has said many times, this pandemic affected all students, and the CARES Act requires that funding should be used to help all students.”

What Can That Money Do for Public Schools?

Officials said the rule could cost public schools at least $16 million, including $2.6 million each in Detroit, the state’s largest district, and Grand Rapids, where DeVos has roots.

State superintendent Michael Rice said nonpublic schools in Michigan are entitled to $5.1 million under the relief law but would get $21.6 million under one of two options outlined under DeVos’ policy.

“This is enough to buy 63,694 Chromebooks for students at $259 per Chromebook, or to buy personal protective equipment for 33,944 students at $486 per student annually,” Rice said. “The U.S. Secretary of Education manufactured guidance and their rule that favored nonpublic schools at the expense of public schools in a way neither intended nor enacted by Congress,”

And public schools need the funding. Kimberly Eberhard, an English teacher at St. Clair High School in the East China School District, told The ’Gander that decades of disinvestment in K-12 education have made teaching during the pandemic a challenge. Older schools, Eberhard said, pose unique challenges both to ventilation and social distancing. 

“Education has been neglected for decades and now everyone will discover how bad it has been,” said Eberhard. “When I say it’s not even possible — the federal government fixing our problems — it comes from 33 years of my living through neglect. You can’t fix that.”

GET THE FULL STORY: Michigan Teachers: Without Federal Funding We’re Not Going to Be Able to Reopen Safely

DeVos, a Trump appointee, has faced stark criticism for her politicizing of education and efforts to funnel public money into private, often religious, schools. DeVos and Trump have also threatened to withhold money from schools that do not resume in-person education in the fall, though as the Washington Post explains they lack that authority. 

“Michigan kids simply cannot afford for Betsy DeVos to play politics with their education,” Nessel said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.