Photo Credit: U.S. Dept. of Education
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Washington State US District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein on Friday issued a preliminary injunction against the Department of Education over the amount of its distribution of federal funds to private school students, which includes Jewish day schools and yeshivas.

The money, about $13.5 billion, was included for K-12 schools in Congress’s $2 trillion-aid package, the CARES Act, which was enacted last March to mitigate economic damage from the pandemic. In march, the Education Department’s interim final rule urged school districts to channel funds from the CARES Act to services to all local private school students, regardless of their backgrounds and needs. This represented a major departure from the way federal education funds go to disadvantaged, at-risk private school students.

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The public schools argued before the court that the interim final rule from the department of education unfairly deprived their disadvantaged students of funding during the pandemic.

The rule affected about 10% of the CARES Act’s $13.2 billion that were marked for public schools.

Judge Rothstein attacked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ rule as “blind to the realities of this extraordinary pandemic and the very purpose of the CARES Act: to provide emergency relief where it is most needed,” and said that “forcing the State to divert funds from public schools ignores the extraordinary circumstances facing the State and its most disadvantaged students.”

Rothstein did not explicitly limit her injunction to Washington State, which means it could lead to similar lawsuits in other states.

Secretary DeVos justified her rule by arguing that the pandemic has hit students of all backgrounds, regardless of which schools they happened to attend. But public school officials and congressional Democrats accused the DOE of improperly diverting money from disadvantaged students in favor of private schools, against the intent of Congress.

The initial claim of the DOE was that it intended to resolve a “critical ambiguity” in language of the legislation by extending aid to all the students. If a private school has 200 students, but only 50 meet the guidelines, under the CARES Act that school’s aid would be based on 50 students. Instead, under the DOE rule, the same school would receive aid based on 200 students.

But Judge Rothstein suggested the language of the CARES Act “could hardly be less ambiguous,” and said that “the Department’s convoluted reading essentially creates an ambiguity to justify resolving it, thereby thwarting Congress’s obvious intent.”

GOP Senator Lamar Alexander stated that he, too, believed Secretary DeVos’s rule was counter to the intent of Congress.

Meanwhile, DeVos and President Donald Trump have met with Catholic leaders and promised their continued support to private schools.

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