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Will States Allow Districts to Arm Educators Using Federal Funds?

By Alyson Klein — September 04, 2018 6 min read
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Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made it clear that she believes districts have the flexibility to arm teachers using federal funds provided under the Every Student Succeeds Act. She said the department has no plans to issue guidance on the topic, or take action to encourage school districts to use ESSA funds this way. President Donald Trump has said arming teachers would make schools safer.

DeVos’s statement opens up some key questions. Will Congress pass new legislation that bars states and districts from using the funds this way? And how many states will actually allow their districts to use federal funds this way?

Will Congress make changes to the law? Don’t bet on it.

Democrats, including two ESSA authors, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., disagree with DeVos’ contention that ESSA already allows states and districts to use federal funds, provided under the flexible $1.1 billion Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, to arm teachers. They say that flies in the face of the language in the law defining “drug and violence prevention programs” as creating school environments that are “free of weapons.”

And 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.

Murray is on the same page. She sent her own letter to that effect.

But making that change through a new law would likely need support from Republicans, and 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,” according to a committee statement. “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.”

How many states may allow districts to arm teachers with federal funds? That’s tough to say right now.

Clearly, there’s some interest out there. DeVos and her team have heard from districts in Texas and Oklahoma asking whether they can use funding under 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, school safety, and more.

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.

We reached out to all of those states to see if they plan to allow local districts to arm educators using federal funds.

Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, and Nevada each said that none of their districts had asked the question at this point. Richard Woods, the Georgia state chief, doesn’t support using federal funds to arm teachers, but would leave the decision up to local districts, his spokeswoman said. (So far, no district in Georgia has asked about this either.) Texas does not plan to issue guidance to its districts on the topic, a spokeswoman said.

Utah hasn’t gotten the question from any of its districts. Any decision would be up to the state board, which has yet to weigh in, said Mark Peterson, a spokesman.

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 Department of Education.

And 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.

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.

“Putting guns in classrooms with students is misguided and dangerous,” they said. “The U.S. Department of Education should not allow our federal education dollars to pay for weapons when that funding is intended for the teaching and learning of our children.

Arming 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 statement opposing the idea of using federal funding to put guns in schools.

“Any real and serious discussion around school safety must focus on creating positive climates where students feel welcome, safe and ready to learn, not introducing dangerous weapons into our schools,” Wentzell said.

In March, the Massachusetts Board of Education approved a resolution against arming teachers. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has taken other steps on school safety.

And Alaska is also prohibiting the use of federal money to arm teachers, for now.

“No school districts in Alaska have currently asked for permission to use federal funds to arm teachers,” said a spokeswoman for the state’s department of education. “At this time, the department would not allow federal funds to be used to pay for the arming of teachers.

We’re still waiting to hear back from other states and will update this post when we do.

Clarification: This post has been clarified to better reflect Georgia state chief Richard Woods’ views on using federal funds to arm teachers.

Julie Smith, right, a 3rd grade teacher at Hudson Elementary School, loads a magazine for her instructor during a concealed carry class for teachers in June at Adventure Tactical Training in Farmer City, Ill. The class was designed to help teachers feel less vulnerable in the wake of a number of recent school shootings across the country.
--David Proeber/The Pantagraph via AP

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