School Climate & Safety

DeVos Tries to Steer Clear of Debate Over Federal Aid to Arm Teachers

By Alyson Klein — September 11, 2018 5 min read
Signs alert people approaching Argyle High School in Argyle, Texas, that members of the staff are armed. Some districts are eyeing federal grant money as a means of equipping teachers and others with guns to protect students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made it clear in response to queries from some school districts and congressional Democrats that she believes districts have the flexibility to arm teachers using federal funds provided under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But that doesn’t mean the Education Department is going to put out guidance on the issue or go out of its way to encourage states or districts to use the money this way, even though President Donald Trump has said arming teachers would make schools safer.

“Let me be clear: I have no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff under the ESEA,” DeVos wrote in response to a letter from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and dozens of other Democratic lawmakers. “Congress did not authorize me or the department to make those decisions.”

Scott and his colleagues wrote to DeVos after the New York Times and other media outlets reported that she may allow districts to use the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, a flexible block grant, to arm educators.

That pot of money, better known as Title IV of the law, can be used for a range of purposes, including arts education, Advanced Placement course fees, foreign-language classes, computer science, student mental health, school safety, and more. It received a $700 million boost in the most recent spending bill, to $1.1. billion. Most districts receive at least $10,000 under the grant and some receive $1 million or more.

DeVos’ response to Scott came after Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, told the Associated Press that states and local jurisdictions always “had the flexibility” to decide how to use federal education funds.

Brogan said that arming educators “is a good example of a profoundly personal decision on the part of a school or a school district or even a state.”

DeVos’ Aug. 31 letter argues that ESSA doesn’t give her the authority to decide whether districts should use Title IV funds to arm educators. But even putting out that interpretation of the law is a kind of action, said Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas in Denton.

“It’s useful rhetorically for the Ed. Department to try to avoid the appearance of taking action here,” he said. “There’s a future where something goes wrong with these types of policies and where the Ed. Department becomes blamed for it.”

Congressional Democrats, including Scott, see the law differently. They say using ESSA funds to arm teachers would fly in the face of the language in the law defining “drug and violence prevention programs” as creating school environments that are “free of weapons.”

Congressional Action?

Scott wants to pass new legislation to make sure it’s crystal clear that arming teachers with federal funds is prohibited.

“If Secretary DeVos refuses to adhere to congressional intent and the administration’s own policy regarding the purchase of firearms for school security, Congress must make clear that no taxpayer money can be used to arm America’s teachers,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, is on the same page. She sent her own letter to DeVos giving a similar interpretation of ESSA.

But that change would likely need support from Republicans. It’s not clear that they are interested.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House education committee, agrees with DeVos’ take that ESSA leaves this choice up to local districts.

“Chairwoman Foxx believes Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants were intentionally designed to give states and local school districts the ability to determine and implement policies to serve their communities,” said a committee spokesman. “Parents, students, and community members can and should make their views about school safety plans known to local leaders.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, is on the same page.

“I’m not a fan of arming teachers, but the federal law says that states, not the federal government, should make these decisions regarding school safety and that’s who I believe should make these decisions,” he said in a statement. “Specifically, the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 continues the Title IV block grant practice of giving to states, not the U.S. Education Secretary, authority to spend federal dollars in a way that creates conditions promoting school safety.”

State Response

It’s tough to say how many states will allow their districts to use ESSA funds to purchase guns or provide firearms training for school staff.

There’s already been some interest. DeVos and her team have fielded questions from districts in Texas and Oklahoma on the issue.

Currently, 19 states allow anyone with permission from school authorities to carry a weapon on K-12 school grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Vermont.

And nine states specifically list school employees as exempt from their bans on firearms on K-12 school grounds, according to NCSL: Idaho, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.

But many of those states haven’t had to deal with the question of directing ESSA funds for arming teachers. Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, and Utah each said that none of their districts had asked.

Missouri will allow its districts to use the funds to arm educators, if that’s something its districts want to do, said Nancy Bowles, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

“Missouri is a local-control state,” she said. “If the federal government did not restrict the funds, Missouri districts would be able to use the money as they see fit.” So far, no district has asked about using ESSA funds for the purpose, she said.

Wyoming passed a law in 2017 allowing districts to arm school staff. But so far, only two districts have decided to take advantage of that law. So far, no district has asked whether it can use federal funding to purchase firearms or provide training to teachers, so the state hasn’t yet come up with a policy in this area, said a spokeswoman for the Wyoming education department.

New York state leaders, though, are “adamantly opposed” to the idea, MaryEllen Elia, the commissioner, and her higher education counterpart, Chancellor Betty Rosa, said in a statement.

Using federal funds to arm educators isn’t allowed under Connecticut’s ESSA plan, said Commissioner Dianna R. Wentzell in a statement. She and Gov. Dannel Malloy sent DeVos a letter opposing the idea of using federal funding to put guns in schools.

And in March, the Massachusetts Board of Education approved a resolution against arming teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos Tries to Steer Clear of Debate Over Federal Aid to Arm Teachers

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