FILE - Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

(The Center Square) – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and the attorneys general of four other states are suing U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over a July 1 rule that requires sharing funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act between private and public schools.

Nessel called DeVos’ rule “a flagrant violation of the plain language of the [CARES] Act.”

"We cannot and will not sit on the sidelines while critical funding specifically allocated based on low-income status is allowed to be reallocated by counting students that have privileges and resources already available to them," Nessel said.

The six-count complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, asks the court to declare DeVos’s rule and guidance as unlawful.

Nessel said DeVos's rule misinterprets the CARES Act's language and would "siphon" about $16 million in total from public schools to private schools.

The disagreement hinges on the amount of federal CARES Act money public school districts must share with nearby private schools.

Nessel’s office says The CARES Act grants money for 12 spending purposes, mostly related to COVID-19.

State agencies receive CARES money and give it to local education agencies, which pass funds to individual schools.

One spending purpose is to aid low-income students, but the groups disagree on the allocation process. 

“Title I’s formula for private school services requires districts to allocate money based on the number of low-income students in private schools,” Nessels’ office said in a news release.

But Nessel’s office says that COVID-19 relief money can be distributed by the total number of students in private schools under the DeVos rule.

Nessel said that under the DeVos rule, The Detroit Public Schools Community District and Grand Rapids School District would each receive $2.6 million less in funding.

"This is a concern for all our school districts, and because of the anticipated financial challenges that face our state in the months and years ahead, we must fight for every single dollar available for education,” Nessel said.

State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice said that DeVos rule “manufactured” the formula choice, which he said would divert $16.5 million from public schools to nonpublic schools.

"The CARES Act is a special appropriation to combat the effects of the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). The pandemic has harmed all our Nation’s students by disrupting their education," the DOE wrote in the latest rules. "Nothing in the CARES Act suggests Congress intended to differentiate between students based upon the public or non-public nature of their school with respect to eligibility for relief."

Great Lakes Education Project Executive Director Beth DeShone noted the lawsuit is unfair to private-school children.

“The coronavirus did not discriminate based on the kind of schools Michigan kids attend, and neither did the Governor’s executive order shuttering every school building in the state.," DeShone said in a statement. 

“GLEP strongly opposes today’s attempt by Governor Whitmer, Attorney General Nessel, and Superintendent Rice to discriminate against and strip emergency funding from kids in the midst of a global pandemic, based simply on the schools their parents have chosen.”

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.