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Janresseger: DeVos Neglects to Help Public Schools Serve Neediest Students While She Pushes to Arm Teachers

Last week while Betsy DeVos stoked an uproar about possibly letting school districts use federal funding for guns to arm teachers, the Senate quietly passed its version of an appropriations bill for the Department of Education in Fiscal Year 2019. The House hasn’t yet passed any kind of education appropriations, and we’ll have to assume that a continuing resolution or a federal shutdown will follow on September 30—the date when next year’s FY19 budget is supposed to be finalized.

With all the sensational talk about teachers packing guns paid for with federal dollars, it is calming to read the rather routine details of the funding that the Senate just voted to appropriate. First off, Betsy DeVos had recommended that the Education Department’s budget be cut, but the Senate bill increases funding  by about $500 million, raising the overall departmental budget to $71.6 billion.  Under the Senate appropriations bill, Title I would get an additional $125 million; special education programs would be increased by the same amount, $125 million.  These are the Department of Education’s biggest K-12 programs. Title I enriches schools where poverty is concentrated and has always been underfunded, especially relative to the growing population of poor students in public schools  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act pays a small fraction—never, until now, more than 19 percent of the cost of federally mandated special education programs—even though Congress promised to fund 40 percent of these costs when the law was passed in 1975.  What is clear is that although Congress is trying to do what’s right relative to proposed cuts by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, we aren’t talking about the kind of significant support public schools really need.

There are encouraging additional positive signs from the Senate, which does not—in its appropriations bill—enact the kind of program priorities Betsy DeVos has proposed.  The Senate appropriations bill does not fold together the education and labor departments. The bill does not eliminate Title II that assists public schools with professional development and salaries for teachers and principals. The bill adds $125 million for Title IV—Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants.  And it flat-funds the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which DeVos has been trying to eliminate altogether; these are the large, collaborative after-school programs that are part of many Community Schools. And despite rumors that DeVos would cut funding for the Office of Civil Rights, the Senate bill adds $8 million.  The Senate appropriates nothing for any federal school voucher or tax credit or education savings account voucher plan, although the Federal Charter Schools Program would get an extra $45 million.

The hot issue of guns in school does not show up in the Senate’s appropriations bill, because the idea DeVos is considering would merely allow school districts to redirect funds out of an already established program for the purpose of buying guns for teachers or school security personnel. The money would come out of Title IV, established in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and dubbed “Student Support and Enrichment.” The NY Times‘ Erica Green explains: “The $1 billion student support program 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.”  Lots of people have pointed out that, even though DeVos says school safety is part of improving conditions for learning, the spending of federal money to buy guns to arm teachers who would supposedly protect students doesn’t really seem to qualify.

Green adds that the idea of using federal funds to arm teachers breaks a federal precedent: “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.”  Green continues: “Such a move appears to be unprecedented, reversing a longstanding position taken by the federal government that it should not pay to outfit schools with weapons. And 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..” When Congress crafted ESSA in 2015, there was pressure to lessen federal intrusion into the educational policy of the states. Congress designed Title IV to free school districts to choose how they would use the federal enrichment dollars and, unlike other federal education laws, did not specifically prohibit the use of the federal dollars to purchase weapons.

Press reports indicate that not much of anybody thinks arming teachers would make public schools safer. The teachers unions oppose it. Democrats and key Republicans in Congress oppose it. Parents worry about what it would do to classrooms, and teachers enumerate the reasons why the practice wouldn’t work if somebody were to come into their school with an automatic rifle.

Education law professor Derek Black ponders the broader meaning of Betsy DeVos’s attention to this matter: “Hats off to Erica Green at the New York Times for a detailed explanation of how federal education dollars can and can’t be spent and the focus of a relatively obscure piece of the federal education funding pie. She interestingly points out something I did not know—that most federal education grants specifically prohibit schools from spending them on guns… That is what makes DeVos’s musings so remarkable… She could be working on finding solutions to things that students in poor schools really need, but instead she is devising strategies to get around Congressional restrictions so she can reallocate federal dollars in ways that no serious and substantial constituency cares about.”

Black continues: “From what I know of the poor schools that receive these federal dollars that she would free up, they need new books, more teachers, better qualified teachers, more well-maintained facilities and technology.  It is hard for me to imagine that more than an insignificant spattering of them will say, ‘You know, we were going to hire a part-time reading specialist this year or our first new computers in eight years, but now that Betsy DeVos has freed us, let’s buy guns instead.’  And the fact that this is what DeVos is spending her time on shows just how small and insignificant this administration is to the quality of educational opportunity in the country.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...