Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education’s restrictions on emergency coronavirus relief won’t apply to California’s community colleges, a federal judge ruled Wednesday
  • The department blocked certain students, including unauthorized immigrants and international students, from receiving Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grants. The judge’s preliminary injunction overturns these limitations for the state’s two-year schools.
  • The decision is the latest legal blow to the department, which has come under massive criticism for its handling of CARES funding. 

Dive Insight:

The Education Department is the subject of two lawsuits over its restrictions on CARES emergency grants for students, one from Washington state and the other from the California Community Colleges, the largest postsecondary system in the U.S.

The department was sued last month after issuing guidance that blocked unauthorized students from the more than $6 billion in CARES grants.

After acknowledging it could not legally enforce the guidance, department officials put forth a rule last week with the same limit, but that carried the force of law.

A federal judge’s ruling Friday in Washington state stops the department’s regulation from taking effect for the colleges there, but notably, the California decision goes further. 

The department cited portions of the U.S. Code that forbid some noncitizens from receiving public benefits as a reason for its move to limit access to the funds. The Washington state judge raised questions about the merits of the argument that CARES Act aid constitutes a public benefit, though he did not rule directly on that matter.

But U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers was not persuaded by the department’s argument. Noncitizens aren’t barred from certain benefits, such as short-term accommodations for the homeless and soup kitchens, Gonzalez Rogers noted. She wrote she does not believe the statute would apply to CARES grants, either, because those funds were provided in response to a public health crisis.

Department spokesperson Angela Morabito in an email noted the judges’ split on public benefits, adding that the department expects to prevail on appeal.

Officials also have asserted that because the CARES Act references federal financial aid, Congress intended for the grants to go only to Title IV-eligible students, a characterization Democratic lawmakers have refuted

Simply because the law mentions Title IV does not mean Congress sought to exclude certain students, Gonzalez Rogers wrote.

“Congress has demonstrated consistently that it knows how to impose conditions on funding and delegate to the Secretary the authority to impose such conditions when intended,” Gonzalez Rogers wrote.

The department has also said the CARES Act lacks a definition of “student,” so it needed to create one. Gonzalez Rogers disagreed. She noted the department calculated how much CARES funding would be allocated to colleges by using a formula that includes the noncitizen students who are now being excluded. 

“[D]efendants have manufactured ambiguity where none exists by imposing their own restrictions on the definition of ‘student,'” she wrote.

The department’s actions would exclude as many as 800,000 students in the system, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a statement celebrating the ruling, adding that it “is good news for all students who have been denied the assistance that Congress intended for them during this public health crisis.” The system enrolls around 2.1 million students in all.

The ruling dictates the department can neither enforce its conditions on the funding nor penalize California’s community colleges from giving grants to students who aren’t eligible for Title IV aid.

This article has been updated to include a comment from the U.S. Department of Education and the California Community Colleges chancellor.

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