Betsy DeVos Eyes Federal Education Grants to Put Guns in Schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to students during a listening session on school issues at the White House in April.

WASHINGTON — When Congress created its academic support fund three years ago, lawmakers had in mind a pot of money that would increase student access to art and music, mental health and technology programs at the nation’s most impoverished schools.

But back-to-back school shootings this year and inquiries from the state of Texas have prompted the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to examine whether to allow states to tap the school enrichment fund for another purpose: guns.

Such a move would reverse a longstanding position taken by the federal government that it should not pay to outfit schools with weaponry. It would also undermine efforts by Congress to restrict the use of federal funding on guns. As recently as March, Congress passed a school safety bill that allocated $50 million a year to local school districts, but expressly prohibited the use of the money for firearms.

But the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in 2015, is silent on weapons purchases, and that omission would allow Ms. DeVos to use her discretion to approve or deny any state or district plans to use the enrichment grants under the measure for firearms and firearm training, unless Congress clarifies the law or bans such funding through legislative action.

“The department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department.

The $1 billion student support program, known as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, is intended for the country’s poorest schools and calls for school districts to use the money toward three goals: providing a well-rounded education, improving school conditions for learning and improving the use of technology for digital literacy.

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, introduced legislation on Thursday to block the Education Department from allowing school districts to use federal funds to purchase firearms.

The ranking Democrat on the House education committee, Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia, said granting state requests to use federal funds for firearms would be “openly violating the spirit of the law as well as common sense about gun safety.”

“Redirecting that money 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,” Mr. Scott said.

But it was unclear whether or when a legislative response would receive a vote. The Republicans who created the fund were hesitant to curb the flexibility that it offers local governments.

“I’m not a fan of arming teachers, but the safe schools block grant for many years has allowed states to make the decision about how to use those federal dollars to make schools safer for children,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, who was one of the chief architects of the new education law.

A spokeswoman for the House education committee said the chairwoman for the panel, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, believed the grants “were intentionally designed to give states and local school districts the ability to determine and implement policies to serve their communities.”

Department officials acknowledged that carrying out the proposal would be the first time that a federal agency has authorized the purchase of weapons without a congressional mandate, according to people familiar with the discussions. And while no such restrictions exist in the federal education law, it could undermine the grant program’s adoption of “drug and violence prevention,” which defines a safe school environment as free of weapons.

In its research, the Education Department has determined that the gun purchases could fall under improving school conditions, people familiar with the department’s thinking said. Under the current guidelines for that part of the grant, the department encourages schools to increase access to mental health counseling, establish dropout prevention programs, reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve re-entry programs for students transitioning from the juvenile justice system.

Department officials confirmed Thursday that they began exploring the possibility after Texas inquired about whether it could use funding for its firearms program. Texas, known for its “school marshal” program, is one of at least nine states that allow school employees to be armed or have access to firearms on campuses.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said that the agency did not formally request that it be able to use the money for firearms, but that it “simply sought clarification” on whether it was allowable.

In May, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas sent a letter to Ms. DeVos asking for additional funding, and stated his intent to use the state’s $62 million increase in support grants under the education law for school safety measures. The letter, reviewed by The New York Times, did not specify guns.

Department officials were considering whether to issue guidance on the funding allowances before the start of the new school year, but have been weighing the political and legal ramifications of gun purchases, according to people familiar with the discussions.

While Ms. DeVos’s policy approach tends to favor flexibility and decision-making at a local level, the department believes that Congress should address the vagueness in the law, according to people with knowledge of the department’s thinking.

Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, who helped write the education law, said the intent of Congress was clear.

“When Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, we were clear that these grants were intended to help foster safe, healthy and supportive environments that improve student learning — not prop up the N.R.A. and gun sales,” Ms. Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said in a statement.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the Trump administration convened a federal commission on school safety, led by Ms. DeVos, to examine topics like mental and behavioral health resources, building security and the role of law enforcement in schools. Ms. DeVos said the commission would not study the role of guns in school shootings, except for a few narrow exceptions, like age restrictions.

The commission has held several public hearings where educators and advocates from across the country have asked for expanded support staff and services, including school counselors, and additional security measures. Members of the commission have also visited school districts, such as one in rural Arkansas, where armed employees can be found at schools in areas not easily reached by law enforcement. The commission plans to issue recommendations by the end of the year.

The Trump administration’s call to arm educators has faced overwhelming criticism from educators, lawmakers and law enforcement officials. That opposition only hardened on Thursday.

“It’s one more example of the corruption, greed and misplaced values of this administration,” said Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the country. “If we use the funds for what they were intended to be used for, we might start tackling some of the issues that lead to gun violence.”

The measure would also break from decades-old practice in how funding is doled out for the purposes of school security.

Guidance for grants distributed by the Homeland Security Department that are intended for “school preparedness,” for example, notes that weapons and ammunition are not permitted. After the Parkland shooting, Congress added a rule prohibiting the use of grants for firearms or firearm training in the Stop School Violence Act, under which the Justice Department grants funds to school districts.

The Trump administration has twice moved to eliminate the grant program from its budget. But as Congress drafted a spending bill in the months after the Parkland shooting, advocates pointed to the program as emblematic of a successful approach to school safety. Congress instead increased funding for the grants by $700 million in the bill passed this year.

A group of more than 20 advocacy organizations has advocated for two years to preserve funding for the school support grants. The group, called the Title IV-A Coalition, said in a statement that it had been virtually ignored by the Education Department.

“Only now, after Congress significantly increased funding, has the department taken notice and is attempting to capitalize on an opportunity to push their baseless agenda to arm teachers, which the majority of the country has spoken out against,” said the group, which includes the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National PTA.

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