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Setback for DeVos in Emergency Aid Suit

June 18, 2020
 
 

For the second time in a week, a federal judge has blocked the U.S. Department of Education from enforcing its interpretation that limits student eligibility for emergency aid grants under CARES Act for some colleges.

But the department in a statement said it will appeal both a ruling Wednesday by a judge in Northern California and one on Friday in Washington State that found that U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos’s take on the coronavirus relief package runs counter to what Congress intended.

In the ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rodgers on Wednesday granted a preliminary injunction sought by the California community college system, which prevents the department from enforcing its interim rule that only students who are eligible for regular federal aid can receive the grants -- a position that excludes undocumented students and others.

But while a federal judge in Washington State on Friday stopped short of including undocumented students in the injunction, Gonzalez said the department erred in arguing noncitizens are not eligible for the help.

The impact of the rulings, however, appeared to be limited. Rodgers’s injunction applies only to California community colleges, while the Washington case only affects colleges and universities in that state. As the California ruling was being announced, the department’s interim rule, limiting eligibility for the emergency grants, went into effect in the rest of the country on Wednesday.

It's unclear if colleges affected by the injunction would begin giving grants to more students with the cases still undecided. “Financial aid administrators are pretty risk averse,” said Dan Madzelan, the American Council on Education’s assistant vice president for government relations and public affairs.

As in the Washington case, which was filed by the Washington State attorney general, the California case focuses on a disagreement over what Congress intended. Attorneys for the community colleges, reflecting the views of critics of the rule and congressional Democrats, had argued that nothing in the CARES Act says the grants should only go only to those who are eligible for other kinds of student aid.

But Justice Department attorneys representing the Education Department pointed to references, in other parts of the coronavirus relief package, to the Higher Education Act, the federal law that among other things guides federal student aid. The department argued that meant Congress intended for the grants to go only to students who are eligible for student aid.

Rodgers called the department’s argument “strained” and said that if Congress had wanted to limit which students get the grants, it would have said so.

She also disagreed with the department’s argument that federal law as part of President Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms bars noncitizens from receiving federal benefits. Rodgers wrote that the federal government has over the years granted exceptions to the prohibitions on noncitizens receiving help to protect life and safety, including access to medical services and nutrition programs.

In the same vein, the emergency grants “were enacted in response to an unprecedented national emergency and public health crisis caused by COVID-19,” Rodgers said.

The judge in the Washington case, Thomas O. Rice, decided not to touch the ban on undocumented students, saying both arguments were reasonable.

And in a statement after the California ruling, the Education Department said, “Two federal judges in the same circuit are split on this issue, and we fully expect to prevail on appeal.”

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, applauded Rodgers’s decision, saying DeVos’s rule excludes as many as 800,000 of the system’s students from receiving the grants to help with expenses like food and housing.

“Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rodgers’s ruling is good news for all students who have been denied the assistance that Congress intended for them during this public health crisis,” Oakley said.

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