Five states, Washington, D.C. sue Education Department, say coronavirus relief deprived low-income schools

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five states and Washington, D.C. sued the Trump administration on Tuesday, saying Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “unlawfully and erroneously” earmarked coronavirus relief funds for private and affluent schools.

In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the states say the Trump administration misinterpreted a key portion of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to determine how aid was distributed to schools.

The states - including California, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Wisconsin, along with the District of Columbia - say the law intended to distribute $30.75 billion for elementary and secondary schools, as well as for colleges and universities, based on the number of low-income students, the lawsuit says.

Instead, the Trump administration has said it must distribute the funds equally using the total numbers of public and private-school students, not just low-income ones.

“The Department’s 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,” the states say in the court filing.

“The States will also be harmed by the loss of these critical resources at a time of severe crisis,” they add.

An Education Department spokeswoman, Angela Morabito, said the department does not comment on pending litigation, but added: “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.”

The lawsuit comes one day after data from the Paycheck Protection Program was released.

The data showed the pandemic aid program protected 51 million American jobs, but also confirmed concerns from Democrats and watchdog groups that a significant portion of the funds flowed to politically connected and well-heeled companies.

It also comes as the Trump administration presses schools to open in the fall, which businesses and conservative groups say is necessary for the economy to rebound even as experts are concerned about the safety of schools which do so.

The United States has seen a rebound in the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus and has reported the most cases and deaths related to the virus in the world.

Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Aurora Ellis