Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to say yes — or no — when asked last year whether schools could use federal money to buy guns for teachers. She said the law was vague and she couldn’t take a side.
The result was de facto permission for states to go ahead.
On Wednesday, House Democrats released an internal Education Department memo that showed the matter was viewed differently inside the agency. The memo advised that the agency’s general counsel believed DeVos did have the power to make a call about the funding and laid out arguments that could be made on both sides.
“The Department’s Office of the General Counsel has advised that the Secretary has discretion to interpret the broad language of the statute as to its permissiveness regarding the purchase of firearms and training on the use of firearms,” reads the July 16 memo.
The memo was sent to DeVos adviser Kent Talbert from Jason Botel, who at the time was principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. A spokesman for the House education committee, which made the memo public Wednesday, said the internal document was obtained from “a reliable source.”
The question of arming teachers has proved emotional following deadly school shootings. Many Democrats, teachers unions, education groups and gun-control activists say weapons in classrooms will make schools more dangerous, not safer. But President Trump and gun rights supporters argue that arming teachers would “harden” schools, making them less likely targets for shootings.
Federal funding has never been used to buy firearms for educators. Last year, Congress passed a school safety bill that prohibited spending on guns even as it provided money for other safety measures.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) grilled DeVos on why she insists she doesn’t have authority to make a decision about federal funding given her department’s contrary assessment.
“You had the ability to make a decision. Your silence is a decision,” she told DeVos.
DeVos repeated her view that it was up to Congress to clarify the matter.
“You have the authority, if you so choose. Read the memo,” Hayes replied. “I would like to submit these documents for the record so that the secretary has the ability to read the memo that came from her office.”
After the hearing, DeVos spokeswoman Liz Hill did not dispute the authenticity of the document but said it was a not a “decision memo” for the secretary. “The law is very clear that this issue is for states to decide, and the secretary has been very clear she is leaving it to the states,” Hill said.
The request for permission to use federal grant money for firearms training came to the White House in May 2018 from Charles McMahan, superintendent of the Porter Consolidated school district in rural Oklahoma. McMahan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At issue are Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants — known as Title IV-A — which totaled more than $1 billion last year. The law allows states and school systems considerable flexibility in spending the money. Congress did not explicitly allow or ban spending on firearms.
In his memo, Botel wrote that DeVos has, in most cases, sought to provide states “maximal discretion where the law suggests flexibility.”
But he also said a federal agency had never before authorized gun purchases for school personnel without specific statutory authorization. He said it would be reasonable to disallow them here concluding it was “unlikely that this interpretation would be subject to a successful legal challenge.”
In the end, DeVos refused to pick a side.
“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 wrote in August in a letter to Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.).