House Democrats are urging Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to make clear that a federal grant program cannot be used to buy firearms for schools.
In a letter being sent to DeVos on Tuesday, 173 out of 193 Democrats in the House argue that DeVos has the authority to say no to such spending and that close examination of the law that governs the grants suggests she should.
“Arming teachers would not only jeopardize student and staff health and safety, but also run counter to Congressional intent, precedent, and common sense,” Democrats said in the letter, which was organized by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the House Education Committee.
At issue is whether states can use Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, available for a wide range of school expenses, to buy guns intended to bolster school safety. Officials said last week that the department had received inquiries from Texas and Oklahoma and that DeVos is considering the idea.
Congressional Democrats are also hoping to attach language to a pending spending bill to bar purchasing guns with the grant money, which would require agreement with Republicans.
Tuesday’s letter asks DeVos to clarify by the week’s end that she will not allow the spending.
Some Republicans, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, have suggested that DeVos has no choice in the matter because the program was written to given states flexibility and does not explicitly bar spending on firearms.
“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 last week.
In their letter, House Democrats argue that is not true.
They say that buying guns runs counter to the purposes of the program, which includes increasing access to educational opportunities for low-income students. They also say that while the program includes flexibility, Congress never considered nor intended that flexibility to include the purchase of guns. Democrats point to another spot in the law that speaks of creating school environments that are “free of weapons.”
In addition, the letter notes that earlier this year, in the wake of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Congress allocated $50 million per year for a school safety grant program that specifically banned the use of funds to train or provide school staffers with firearms. Democrats pointed to a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program in which the statute does not talk about firearms but agency guidance bars it anyway.
“It is the long-standing position of the federal government that using federal funds to purchase firearms and ammunition as related to school safety is not allowed,” they wrote.
Education Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill replied that DeVos has no action planned on this issue. “If Congress would like to clarify the law, they should take the opportunity to do so,” she said.