Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Friday it is up to states whether to spend federal money to buy firearms as officials struggle to find ways to prevent school shootings.
That means, for the first time, federal education dollars could be used to buy guns.
“Let me be clear: I have no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff” under federal education law, DeVos said in a letter to Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.).
DeVos said Congress should determine whether the money can be spent on firearms.
“I will not legislate via fiat from the Department,” she wrote.
Officials in Texas and Oklahoma have asked the department to clarify whether money from an educational grant program can be used to buy firearms or provide gun training in an effort to make schools safer. But no explicit clarification is planned, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said.
The use of taxpayer money for guns in schools has drawn criticism from Democrats, teacher unions, education groups and gun-control activists, who fear weapons in classrooms will make schools more dangerous, not safer. But President Trump has argued arming teachers would “harden” schools, making them less likely targets for shootings.
Last week, department officials said the question of whether to allow grant money to be used for guns was under consideration. But on Friday, DeVos said the agency will not take sides.
Experts said that by offering no guidance, the agency is clearing the way for states to spend the money on firearms for schools.
“If they are choosing not to issue the guidance, then that’s a signal to states that [states] could choose to approve those local requests,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
Governors and state education officials in New Jersey and Connecticut said Friday they would not permit federal education dollars to be spent on guns.
“New Jersey will not participate in this dangerous and misguided program, and I encourage the president to instead use our resources to better provide all of our children with the educational and innovative learning programs they deserve, not turn our classrooms into a war zone,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said.
It was not clear whether more conservative states would allow the gun purchases.
Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants — known as Title IV-A — are distributed to states, which allocate the money after districts draft plans on how the money would be spent.
The statute that created the $1 billion program offers states considerable flexibility and, unlike another pot of federal money, does not ban use for firearm purchases.
The law specifies that larger districts have to spend at least 20 percent of the money on school health and safety. The Obama administration suggested schools spend funds in that category on mental health services, nutrition programs and drug prevention.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has said the Education Department has little choice but to allow states to spend money on firearms if they want.
“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.
But this week, 173 of 193 House Democrats wrote DeVos to argue she has the authority and responsibility to reject such spending.
“Arming teachers will recklessly endanger both students and educators,” said Scott, who is the top Democrat on the House Education Committee and who organized the letter. He called on Congress to clarify that taxpayer money cannot be used for this purpose if DeVos will not do so.
The Federal Commission on School Safety, chaired by DeVos, plans to say decisions about arming teachers are best left to local districts and will offer guidance to those adopting such a policy, said people familiar with a report being drafted by the panel.
Frank Brogan, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview with the Associated Press published Friday that arming educators “is a good example of a profoundly personal decision on the part of a school or a school district or even a state.”
The AP reported that Brogan said states have “always had the flexibility” to use funds as they want when he was asked whether federal grants could be used to buy firearms for schools.
“The position is: You have the language . . . the language was written specifically to and always interpreted to mean ‘this is your money,’ ” he told the AP.
After the AP story published, the agency spokeswoman said Brogan did not mean to explicitly signal that the Title IV-A grants could be used for firearms. Rather, she said, the Education Department is not stating a view on what the federal law allows or does not allow and will not state a view at any point in the future.