Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to reporters about the coronavirus at the White House in March.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to reporters about the coronavirus at the White House in March. / AP

Several Democratic-led states and the District of Columbia have joined in a lawsuit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, accusing the Trump administration of trying to unlawfully divert pandemic relief funds from public schools to private schools.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Michigan, Maine, New Mexico and Wisconsin have also joined.

Last month, the Education Department put out a rule saying that private schools should benefit from a representative share of the more than $13 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act earmarked for public schools.

Becerra contends that is an unlawful interpretation of the CARES act, which allows private schools to get a disproportionate amount of Title I funds — traditionally reserved for low-income students.

Although a portion of those funds are allocated to private schools to provide "equitable services" to students, the department's interpretation allows it to count all students for purposes of the funding formula instead of just those who qualify for Title I assistance, according to the lawsuit.

"Today's announcement is about stopping the Trump administration's latest effort to steal from working families to give it to the very privileged," Becerra said, adding the rule could put $1.6 billion in aid allocated to his state's public schools in jeopardy.

In Michigan, officials said it could cost their public schools $16 million.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said it would divert nearly $4.2 million "away from taxpayer-funded public schools in our poorest school districts to private institutions — in violation of the requirements established by Congress, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the U.S. Constitution."

"Instead of ignoring congressional intent and diverting funds away from public schools, Secretary DeVos should follow the law," he said.

In a statement in June, DeVos said the CARES act was meant to aid "all American students, teachers, and families impacted" by COVID-19.

"There is nothing in the law Congress passed that would allow districts to discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment," she said.

The suit comes after DeVos first suggested the change in May. That attracted concern in Congress from members of both parties and from public school officials.

In a call with Vice President Pence, DeVos on Monday said governors had left $195 million unspent from the funds for schools allocated under CARES.

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