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Chicago joins lawsuit against DeVos over sending federal funds to private schools

Jonathan C. selects an answer to a question on a digital learning program during class at CICS West Belden. The Chicago charter school employs the personalized learning method for its K-8 students. The school is part of the Chicago International Charter School network, and is managed by Distinctive Schools. Photo by Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat NOTE: Last names not given by school Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

Chicago has joined a lawsuit challenging a requirement that public school districts give some of their federal coronavirus relief funds to private schools.

The district, which is expected to get about $205 million from the relief package, estimates that it would have to hand over $10 million to private schools.

Chicago joins 12 states and cities in backing the suit against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the federal education department. In a joint statement, the city and the school district said they are seeking to prevent the money from “being misallocated from public schools students who are most in need of support.”

“The devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted low-income students of color,” the statement said, “and the Trump Administration is turning its back on these students in favor of wealthy private institutions by siphoning public funds away from the students who Congress intended to support.”

The lawsuit, led by Michigan and California and filed in federal court earlier this month, claims that the method of sharing the federal funds with private schools disproportionately benefits those institutions. Following federal guidance, Illinois instructed school districts to set aside funds according to total private school enrollment, rather than enrollment of low-income students — a distinction that has been a point of contention nationwide because the first method pulls far more dollars away from public schools.

The federal emergency funding package, adopted by Congress in March, granted public schools almost $31 billion to help them fill budget holes caused by declining state revenue and pay for unforeseen expenses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, such as buying protective equipment for staff, technology for students, and more.

Illinois schools are set to receive nearly $600 million from the package, but the state has so far been unable to say how much of that will be set aside for private schools.

DeVos has been a long-time advocate for school choice, pushing for controversial programs that steer public dollars toward private school tuition through school vouchers.

In a statement when the suit was first filed earlier this month, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but she stressed that the pandemic has affected public and private students alike, and the federal dollars should help both groups.

“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 spokeswoman, Angela Morabito, said in a statement.

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