Betsy DeVos Considers Exploiting Federal Education Grants to Arm Teachers

Recent school shootings and concerns expressed from Texas school administrators have prompted US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to consider tapping into federal education grants to arm teachers, an action that would break with the U.S. Federal Government’s longstanding position not to outfit educators with weapons. This action would not only hamper Congressional efforts to limit the use of federal funding on weapons purchases, but also draw funding directly away from critical student enrichment programs and support services.

The school safety bill, passed by Congress this March, has already allocated 50 million dollars annually to schools, explicitly banning the use of the said funding for weapons related purchases. DeVos, however, has a different funding source in mind. Her department has begun considering the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, a program which critically does not prohibit the use of the funding towards firearms. This omission would allow DeVos to approve any plans to access these grants for both the purchase of firearms in schools and training of educators in the use of these weapons.

DeVos’ proposal to exploit funding set aside for academic enrichment towards guns was met with immediate backlash in Congress. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut introduced an emergency amendment of sorts on Thursday to prevent the Department of Education from accessing the aforementioned grants for guns purchases. In defending his amendment to block the arming of teachers, he exhorted, “Congress doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Parent’s don’t think it’s a good idea. Teachers don’t think it’s a good idea.”

While Murphy’s amendment ultimately failed to be approved, several other gun control groups have come together in the hopes of suing the Department of Education should it tap into the federal education grants for the purchase of guns in schools.  Chief counsel Adam Skaggs of Gifford Law Center said on Friday, “Our complaint will seek a declaration that allowing these federal funds to be spent on guns instead of activities meant to make schools feel safe is unlawful, as well as an order from the court enjoining the Department of Education from approving such funds.” Groups such as the American Federation of Teachers as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center have also joined the legal battle, according to Newsweek Fellow Ramsey Touchberry.

Ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia, has also openly voiced his opposition to DeVos’ proposal. “Redirecting [federal grants] to arm teachers and school staff will recklessly endanger the safety of both students and educators, while robbing underserved students of the support and opportunity they deserve,” he said earlier this week.

Success of opposing legislation is tenuous, as seen this week with the failure of Murphy’s proposed amendment. The flexibility, in particular, the Enrichment Grants render at present is appealing to some. A spokeswoman for the House Education Committee said committee chairwoman Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina believes the grants “were intentionally designed to give states and local school districts the ability to determine and implement policies to serve their communities,” i.e. left deliberately ambiguous.

Proceeding with DeVos’ proposal is not the answer when it comes to ensuring safety in schools. The goal of the one-billion dollar support program is to improve academic enrichment in some of the country’s most underfunded schools, working with the three explicitly stated goals of a) providing well-rounded education, b) improving school conditions for learning, and c) improving the use of technology for digital literacy. Exploiting the second category of “improving school conditions for learning” to presumably include arming teachers is a clear misuse of the grants, and speaks to just how problematic omissions can be in funding for federal education. These kinds of omissions provide appealing loopholes for organizations as great as the Department of Education under DeVos to exploit these grants to arm teachers at the expense of funding programs that actually contribute to academic enrichment.

The New York Times released in a statement last Thursday that proceeding with DeVos’ proposal would mark “the first time that a federal agency has authorized the purchase of weapons without a congressional mandate.” Inquiries into the use of the federal education grants have come from Texas administrators, and it is unclear whether these—combined with recent school shootings—will propel DeVos to move further. What is clear, however, is that political omissions, like the lack of detail regarding whether the aforementioned grants can be applied to firearms, need to be addressed in order to keep guns out of our schools.

Meera Santhanam