WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering whether states can use federal grant money to buy guns for schools, including possibly arming teachers, after receiving queries from Texas and Oklahoma, people familiar with the matter said.
The idea drew swift criticism from Democrats, teacher unions, education groups and gun control activists, who said the response to school shootings should be fewer guns, not more. But President Donald Trump and others have argued that arming teachers would “harden” schools and make them less likely targets for mass shootings.
Texas and Oklahoma were seeking clarity on spending funds from Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, which can be used for a wide range of school expenses.
Some opponents said firearms were never considered when the grants were created in 2015. But the $1.1 billion program has few restrictions on it, and some argued DeVos may have little choice but to give states the flexibility Congress wrote into the law.
“Congress wrote a vague law and everyone is trying to figure out what it means,” an administration official said. This person added that Congress should bar such purchases if it does not want to allow them.
The education department has never before funded gun purchases. This year, in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congress allocated $50 million per year for a school safety grant program, which specifically banned the use of funds to train or provide school staff with firearms.
Officials cautioned that it is possible DeVos would take no action on this matter – not expressly permitting the gun purchases, nor advising against it. An education department spokeswoman declined to say how DeVos sees the matter.
“The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said.
Some read the move by Texas and Oklahoma as an effort to force DeVos' hand on an issue she would rather not confront. Even if she doesn't want to approve firearm purchases, they said, the program's rules may leave her little choice.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate education committee, said DeVos may have to allow the purchases even if she doesn't want to.
“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,” he said, using an earlier name for the grant program at issue.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, vowed to fight the idea. “Using these funds to add more firearms into schools is not only the opposite of what Congress intended, it is wrong and will make schools more dangerous and students less safe,” she said.