By SOPHIE TATUM, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that the Education Department must temporarily hold off on implementing a controversial rule that would have directed congressionally approved COVID-19 relief funds away from public schools.
Under the CARES Act, some of the federal funds directed to local education agencies were to be shared with private schools. However, the Education Department under Secretary Betsy DeVos instituted a rule that would allocate those funds based on the total number of students enrolled at private schools rather than the number of low-income students attending, which is traditionally how Title I funds are distributed.
According to the ruling signed by U.S. District Judge James Donato, Congress’ intent on how the funds should be distributed is “plain as day.”
“This command unambiguously requires plaintiffs to calculate the non-public school portion” of the funds according to the traditional formula, which is “based on the number of children from low-income families who attend private schools,” the ruling stated.
The department’s rule received swift backlash when it was announced in July and faced legal challenges from several states and school districts, as well as the nation’s largest civil rights group, the NAACP.
This particular lawsuit was brought by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, along with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and was joined by Washington, D.C., and states including Maine, New Mexico and Wisconsin.
The suit argued that DeVos’ rule contradicted the CARES Act language. The lawsuit also argued that the Education Department rule would bring “immediate and irreparable harm” to the states, schools and students all across the country.
According to the ruling, Michigan submitted evidence that it would be required to divert “over four times as much” as it planned.
“Losing $16,496,727.63 of federal funding to private schools would be the equivalent of laying off 466 teachers from public schools in Flint, Michigan,” the ruling stated.
Similarly, “Wisconsin schools had to choose between diverting over $4 million of CARES Act funding to private schools or abandoning district-wide coronavirus preparation such as sanitizing school buses,” the ruling said.
The Education Department presented the rule as an issue of equity.
“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,” Education Department spokesperson Angela Morabito said in response to the temporary injunction.
The decision follows a similar injunction request by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson that was granted last week by Judge Barbara Rothstein.
ABC News’ Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.
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