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Federal judge blocks extra CARES Act aid for private schools, cites harm to Flint

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A California federal judge put a temporary stop to a U.S. Department of Education rule that would require public school districts to share coronavirus relief funds with private school students, citing how it would harm at least two Michigan school districts. 

The rule misinterpreted language in the CARES Act to give nonpublic schools a greater share of the funding, resulting in at at least $16 million of the federal to be diverted from Michigan public schools to the state's 700 non-public schools, according to a group of state attorney generals that included Michigan's Dana Nessel. 

Nessel, one of the Democratic attorneys general on the case filed in California, had argued the CARES Act formula required schools districts to share coronavirus funding with low-income students attending private schools in the district, not any and all private school students.

After the coalition of states filed suit July 7 against the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos, U.S. District Judge James Donato granted a preliminary injunction, halting DeVos' rule temporarily because the language of the CARES Act was "familiar and uncomplicated, to say the least."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

Donato, a nominee of former President Barack Obama, noted the particular impact the rule would have on Michigan schools in Grand Rapids and Flint. 

“Losing (nearly $16.5 million) of federal funding to private schools would be the equivalent of laying off 466 teachers from public schools in Flint, Michigan,” he wrote.

Nessel and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer praised the decision and promised to continue the lawsuit until the matter is fully resolved.

"The fight to protect our public schools will continue until every dollar of the CARES Act funding goes to support the places that Congress intended," Nessel said in a statement. 

But the Michigan Catholic Conference accused Michigan's attorney general of venue shopping and trying to hurt private schools that educate children.

"Clearly, the attorney general went out to California to find a favorable ruling that discriminates against nonpublic schools," Michigan Catholic Conference President and Chief Executive Paul Long said in a statement.

"Congress included nonpublic schools in the CARES Act to ensure all students are treated equally, without prejudice due to the school they attend. As national policies and a litany of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings are moving the country closer to equality in education, some elected officials in Michigan continue to prioritize ideological politics over the thousands of low and middle-income families enrolled in nonpublic schools who, like their public school friends and neighbors, are equally impacted by the COVID pandemic.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com