SPOKANE — A federal judge in Spokane today agreed with Attorney General Bob Ferguson, blocking a U.S. Department of Education decision that deprives thousands of Washington college students from receiving critical aid included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Under its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, the CARES Act appropriated more than $12 billion to higher education institutions across the nation to prevent, prepare for and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act required that at least 50 percent of the funds be disbursed to students as emergency grants for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations.

On April 21, without congressional authorization, the Department of Education announced that only students who are eligible for federal financial aid may receive CARES Act grants. No such requirement is in the text of the CARES Act itself.

The Department of Education’s restriction excluded many students in need, including students without a high school degree, adult basic education students, students who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status and more.

On May 19, Ferguson filed a challenge to the department’s decision in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. The same day, Ferguson filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to immediately block the Department of Education’s restrictions on the grants.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice today granted Ferguson’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

“The harm to students that stems from the eligibility restriction is not only the inability to access (the CARES Act) funds; the harm is in the inability to access these emergency funds in a timely manner,” Rice wrote in his ruling. “Absent injunctive relief, students will continue to be denied access to emergency relief funds to which they are likely otherwise entitled.”

Impacts to Washington students

As a result of the department’s decision, thousands of Washington higher education students who desperately need financial assistance were excluded from the program. They include:

Adult basic education students at Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges who are acquiring reading, writing, math and language skills to leverage a job, college degree or a trade certification

Many of Washington’s roughly 17,000 “Dreamers,” individuals brought to the country at an early age, who have been educated by Washington schools, and are protected under the DACA program

Students whose academic progress has fallen below a C average. For example, according to the Washington State Board of Community & Technical Colleges, nearly 52,000 of the state’s 363,000 community and technical college enrollees are adult basic education students, the majority of which are not eligible for CARES Act funding. Adult basic education students account for about 14 percent of community and technical college enrollment.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 85 Washington universities, community and technical colleges and cosmetology schools have received more than $113 million for emergency grants to students.