School Climate & Safety

Democrats Move to Block Use of Federal Funds to Arm Teachers

By Evie Blad — March 14, 2019 5 min read
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A pair of Democratic lawmakers moved to prohibit the use of federal funds to arm teachers Thursday.

Rep. Jahana Hayes and Sen. Chris Murphy, both from Connecticut, introduced resolutions in their respective chambers of Congress to clarify that U.S. Department of Education cannot allow school districts to use federal funds to pay for firearms or firearms training for teachers.

“Teachers have way too much to do today as it is,” Murphy said at a news conference. “They need to be educators, they need to be social workers, they need to be grief counselors. They don’t need to be marksmen.”

Murphy and Hayes—a former National Teacher of the Year whose Connecticut district includes Newtown, the site of a 2012 school shooting— said their resolution would clarify existing law.

Their move follows months of sparring between lawmakers and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos over whether states can allow schools to use federal grant funds provided through Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act to arm teachers or provide firearms training. Student Support and Academic Enrichment funds under Title IV can be broadly used to provide “a well-rounded education,” improve school safety and conditions for learning, and to improve the use of technology in schools.

“As a teacher, I would have never wanted the responsibility...of securing a firearm with 1300 children,” Hayes said Thursday, adding that federal funds shouldn’t be siphoned away from needs like hiring student support personnel and buying new learning materials. In an emergency situation, Hayes wouldn’t want her husband, a police officer, to have to quickly determine if an armed adult was a shooter or a teacher trying to protect his or her students, she said.

A firestorm errupted last year after a New York Times article said DeVos was considering allowing schools to use Title IV funds to arm teachers, an idea championed by President Donald Trump’s administration after a February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

In August, DeVos said she would not take a position on the issue either way. Guidance created by the Obama administration about how the grants could be spent said ESSA provides “substantial flexibility” in how schools determine how to use the funds, and it highlights the role of states in determining acceptable uses, she wrote in a letter to dozens of Democratic lawmakers.

Murphy later demanded a congressional hearing on the issue.

Murphy and Hayes, joined by fellow Democratic lawmakers and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten Thursday, said the law already clearly prohibits using any federal education funds for such a purpose. ESSA defines drug and violence prevention in schools as the creation “of a school environment that is free of weapons,” they said. And the STOP School Violence Act, passed a month after the Parkland shooting, includes language that prohibits grant funding provided by the act from being “used for the provision to any person of a firearm or training in the use of a firearm.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees a House subcommittee that governs K-12 spending, said that, while no federal funds are currently being used to arm teachers, lawmakers want to close the door on the possiblity.

“It is outrageous that Secretary DeVos would even consider using taxpayer dollars on such a dangerous proposal,” she said.

A spokesperson for the education department did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Opposition to Arming Teachers

Shortly after the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump floated the idea of arming teachers as a solution to school violence. He proposed providing bonuses to teachers who carry guns at work, and suggested recruiting former police and military members skilled with firearms to work as educators.

But multiple polls conducted in the year show that educators are largely opposed to the idea. Those include a Gallup poll, cited by lawmakers Thursday, that found in March 2018 that 73 percent of teachers opposed teachers and staff carrying guns in schools. And 58 percent said carrying guns in schools would make schools less safe.

The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act designates schools as gun-free zones, but it allows states to authorize certain individuals, including educators, to carry firearms on school grounds. Some states, including Texas and Utah, already do so.

Those opposed to the idea, including some survivors of school shootings, argue that teachers cannot keep up with the ongoing training necessary to handle a weapon in an active-shooter situation. They say that there are more effective ways of keeping schools safe.

Supporters of the idea, including some rural educators, say having more armed adults in a school can serve as a deterrent to would-be intruders and helps lessen response times when law enforcement is far away.

A federal school safety commission created by Trump and chaired by DeVos recommended in December that schools “seriously consider the option of partnering with local law enforcement in the training and arming of school personnel.” But the panel did not mandate arming teachers or provide additional funding to do so.

Photo: Jill Collins, a 3rd grade teacher at DeLand-Weldon Elementary School, fires off a round during a concealed carry class for teachers in Farmer City, Ill. --David Proeber/The Pantagraph via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.