Dept. of Ed Secretary DeVos concedes defeat in fight over money for public schools
Photo: AP Photo/David Eggert, File
LANSING — Public schools received some good news recently.
Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Tuesday that U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a letter Friday acknowledging defeat in her effort to rewrite a section of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that would have diverted over $16 million away from K-12 public schools in Michigan.
Locally, CASMAN Academy director Shelly VanVoorst said DeVos’s concession was “good news for public schools.”
“I like to see taxpayer dollars stay where the taxpayer funding should go — that’s a good thing. Taxpayers don’t get a say in private schools,” she said. “Private schools get to develop their own rules, their own testing requirements. They don’t have to follow state testing. They don’t have to get a school report card from the state. They don’t even have to follow the same teacher evaluation. It’s nice to see the tax dollar is going to schools that have to follow those laws.”
In litigation led by Nessel and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Judge James Donato — of the U.S. District Court Northern District of California — issued a preliminary injunction on Aug. 26 halting DeVos’ rule. Donato’s ruling joined two similar orders by courts in the District of Columbia and Washington State.
“We filed this lawsuit for one simple reason: to ensure students in Michigan and across this nation were not robbed of educational resources they deserve,” said Nessel in a news release. “The landscape of how a regular school day is conducted has changed for so many and Congress allocated these CARES Act funds for those most in need. We were poised for a fight because it was the right thing to do, and will accept Secretary DeVos’ acknowledgement of her defeat. However, my colleagues and I will remain on guard to defend against any future attempts by this administration to rob funding from our public schools and students who are most in need of these critical resources.”
In her letter, DeVos writes that while the U.S. Department of Education disagrees with Judge Donato and the other district courts’ rulings, her Department will “respect the rule of law and will enforce the law as the courts have opined. The department will not appeal these rulings.”
Kaleva Norman Dickson/Bear Lake dual superintendent Marlen Cordes said CARES Act funding allows public schools to meet students’ safety needs while still having funds for educational needs.
“(The CARES Act funding) was going to be even more important when we were anticipating a $550 per pupil reduction. Fortunately, our state legislators and governor were able to work together and give us a bill that kept us whole,” he said. “Now the CARES Act is allowing us to use our money for our educational needs and allows us to use those CARES dollars for our PPE and costs associated with COVID-19. It’s huge for us, for sure.”
Onekama Consolidated Schools principal/superintendent Gina Hagen agreed, saying public schools around the country faced unprecedented spending needs heading into the school year.
“It’s huge right now. We had some much more extreme costs at the beginning of the year,” she said. “… It definitely helps the schools that qualified for it. There’s been tremendous expense this year.”
VanVoorst shared the sentiment.
“The CARES Act funding is important to help us in so many ways. It helps us meet the needs of students during this pandemic time,” she said. “It’s a much needed boost during the pandemic when we had taken a cut, and now we’re getting that money to help us filter some of it back in.”
Confirming what the CARES Act requires and Nessel had fought to enforce, the department stated that “[g]oing forward, districts must calculate the minimal proportional share for CARES Act equitable services according to the formula provided in Section 1117(a)(4)(A) of the (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) of 1965.”
Nessel and Becerra led a coalition of states that filed suit on July 7 against DeVos and her department for issuing a rule that would unfairly limit the ability of public schools to use federal funds provided under the CARES Act. The Aug. 26 preliminary injunction order prohibited the department from enforcing its rule until a decision on the merits of the case could be rendered.
In his order, Donato found that the coalition was likely to succeed on the merits of its case because, contrary to Secretary DeVos’ argument that the CARES Act language is ambiguous, Congress used language that is “familiar and uncomplicated, to say the least.” As a result, Donato wondered, “how could anyone maintain with a straight face” that the CARES Act language is unclear? Quoting the late-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Donato further found that the department’s interpretation of the CARES Act was “’interpretive jiggery-pokery’ in the extreme.”
“I know that early on there were lots of interpretations. People involved in courts, educators and people at the state level were thinking that there is no gray area in the language and there really is no other way to interpret it,” Cordes said. “I know (DeVos) had a different interpretation, so I’m glad the courts ruled in our favor and didn’t go down that rabbit hole as far as her interpretation goes.”
In their litigation, Nessel and Becerra were joined by the attorneys general of Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, as well as the City School District for the City of New York, Chicago Board of Education, Cleveland Municipal School District Board of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District.