California Community Colleges sue Betsy Devos over student relief aid restrictions

Education+Secretary+Betsy+DeVos+during+a+news+briefing+on+the+coronavirus+pandemic+along+with+members+of+the+Coronavirus+Task+Force+at+the+White+House+in+Washington%2C+D.C.%2C+on+Friday%2C+March+27%2C+2020.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a news briefing on the coronavirus pandemic along with members of the Coronavirus Task Force at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, March 27, 2020.

Sean Davis, News Editor

California Community Colleges filed a lawsuit against Betsy Devos’ Department of Education over guidelines attached to the $6 billion fund allocated by Congress in the CARES Act for student relief.

The lawsuit, filed May 12, accuses the Department of Education of applying unconstitutional restrictions on pandemic relief money intended to help students during the Coronavirus outbreak.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will represent the Board of Governors and Community Colleges, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

The Department of Education guidelines mandate only distributing funds to students who have applied for federal financial aid.

This ruling prevents, among others, undocumented students with DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrival) status and students who haven’t completed their GED (General Educational Development) from accessing relief aid.

“The Department of Education ignored the intent of the CARES Act to give local colleges discretion to aid students most affected by the pandemic,” Oakley said. “Instead [they have] arbitrarily excluded as many as 800,000 community college students.”

800,000 students represent about 40% of the 2 million students enrolled in California community colleges.

“Among those harmed are veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application, and non-citizens, including those with DACA status…The California Community Colleges serves an estimated 70,000 undocumented students, many of whom have DACA status,” Chancellor Oakley stated.

The Department of Education has argued that “there is no persuasive legal support for the proposition that Congress intended the CARES Act to create an entitlement for DACA recipients and others who are otherwise ineligible for federal public benefits.”

California Community Colleges accuse Secretary Devos of initially taking “the position that this emergency relief is available for all students” but “later [issuing] guidance that took the position that only students eligible for federal financial aid… may receive emergency federal assistance.”

The lawsuit states that “on or about April 21, 2020” the Department of Education “drastically changed its interpretation of the CARES Act without acknowledging its prior position.”

This prior position, according to the suit, was that colleges “have ‘significant discretion’ on how to allocate Student Assistance to students, and that ‘each institution may develop its own system and process… which may include distributing the funds to all students… who demonstrate significant need'”

Chancellor Oakley and the CCC contend that “there is no provision in the CARES Act that sets eligibility requirements or provides the Secretary of Education with the discretion to do so.”

The CARES Act allocated $14 billion in relief aid to higher education institutions across the country with half set aside for direct student relief.

Cerritos College has received $12 million in aid from the CARES Act.

Senate VP of Student Services, Dr. Dilcie Perez, had previously stated that the school “plan[s] on using almost $3.5 million to distribute to almost 9,000 students.”

Cerritos College President Jose Fierro has previously called the restrictions mandated by the Department of Education a “problem” and the interpretation of the CARES Act “extremely narrow.”

“I do not know if this lawsuit will overturn the current guidelines. However, it is a step in the right direction,” he said. “We at Cerritos College found a way to support all of our students, including those who were not included in the CARES Act and we will continue to advocate for ALL of our students.”

Marisa Perez, president of the Cerritos College Board of Trustees, stated, “My colleagues and I on the Board of Trustees share the Chancellor’s passion for fighting for resources to help all of our students, especially those that come from vulnerable and underrepresented groups.”

“We will be closely monitoring this case, and are ready to lend our support to advance this effort if it [is] needed,” she added.