WASHINGTON — Five states are suing the Trump administration for directing emergency relief aid to students at private schools, regardless of their income level.

The states of Michigan, California, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia filed the complaint in federal court on Tuesday against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The states were led by the attorneys general of Michigan and California, Dana Nessel and Xavier Becerra.

“At a time when Michigan schools are facing an unprecedented crisis, every single child deserves the chance to succeed. But, yet again, Secretary DeVos has decided to tip the scales in favor of private schools, leaving the State’s public-school students behind,” Nessel said.

Congress, under the CARES Act in March, sent relief funding for education to the states, to distribute to local educational agencies (LEAs).

Although some of the Title I-A funds could go to help private school students, under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act they are specifically meant for “at-risk private-school students” and not students in general, the states’ lawsuit says.

An interim final rule issued by the Education Department directs the LEAs to “provide equitable services to students and teachers in non-public schools,” not specifying that they are meant only for low-income students, the lawsuit says.

DeVos said in a June 25 announcement that “CARES Act programs are not Title I programs,” and thus not subject to the limitation on use only for low-income students. If they are limited to only low-income students, they still must be spent equitably across public and private schools in the district, she said.

“There is no reasonable explanation for debating the use of federal funding to serve both public and private K-12 students when federal funding, including CARES Act funding, flows to both public and private higher education institutions.” 

The funding does not directly flow through LEAs to private schools, but rather is used by the agencies for “secular, neutral, and nonideological services,” DeVos said. This would probably include cleaning, health equipment, and remote learning services, she said.

Furthermore, the department’s rule “discourages the limited number of financially secure private schools from seeking equitable services,” the agency said in its press release.

However, according to the states’ lawsuit, the agency “grafted its own allocation and eligibility rules on Congress’s directive.”

“CARES Act money is designed to provide support to schools with low-income students, as it is to be allocated based on the amount of Title I funding each state and school district received in the most recent fiscal year,” the lawsuit states. 

According to the states’ complaint, the interpretation “will deprive low-income and at-risk students, their teachers, and the public schools that serve them of critical resources to meet students’ educational and social/emotional needs during and after pandemic-related school closures.”

According to McClatchy, the White House is planning to request money for scholarship programs for students of private and religious schools in the next coronavirus relief package.