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Democrats in Congress Hate Arming Teachers. Did They Miss a Chance to Curtail It?

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For close to a year, congressional Democrats have made something very clear: They hate the idea of arming teachers. But did they just pass up the chance to make it crystal clear and—potentially—change federal law in the process?

Quick reminder: After a public outcry last summer, U.S.Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said she would leave it up to states to decide whether a grant program under the Every Student Succeeds Act could be used to buy firearms and arm teachers. Beltway Democrats were outraged at the idea; they've pointed that ESSA does not say money can be spent this way. And they haven't forgotten about it. In a House hearing earlier this year, Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., revealed a 2018 Education Department memo that Democrats said proved DeVos could have taken the legally correct position on the issue by barring districts from spending money this way, but chose to punt instead. DeVos has stuck by her position that Congress must act, not her. 

Fast forward to earlier this week and the committee report on the House Democrats' education spending bill. This report "directs the Secretary ... to issue guidance clarifying that [ESSA Title IV] funds are not allowed to be used for the purchase of firearms or for firearms training." 

But, as DeVos has demonstrated by repealing several Obama administration guidance documents, guidance is not the same as statutory language. In the report, Democrats aren't trying to change ESSA itself. 

So why didn't Democrats try to change the law? A House Democratic aide said the report's language basically forces DeVos to take what Democrats see as the next logical step: use her own department's 2018 memo to clarify to districts that they can't use ESSA money to arm teachers because it's not authorized in ESSA. By not doing so, the aide said, DeVos is "deliberately sowing uncertainty" for schools. 

But that's an argument for why Democrat did what they did, not why they didn't choose another (many might say stronger) option. We also asked Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy who's worked extensively on education legal issues, about the logic of what Democrats are doing here. 

Leichty, who noted that nothing in House appropriations rules prohibits lawmakers from using spending bills to change a statute, laid out a few possible reasons: 

  1. It's possible that (ironically) by attempting to change ESSA's statutory language, Democrats could have undermined their previously stated position that Title IV already essentially prohibits money from going to arm teachers, Leichty pointed out. If Democrats were so adamant that it's already not allowed, the thinking goes, why is more language needed?
  2. Attempting to change ESSA's statutory language in spending bills might not sit particularly well with at least some of the people who wrote ESSA. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and a key ESSA architect, has not expressed tons of love for arming teachers. But in general, it's safe to say he's even less enamored of attempts by other lawmakers to make a change (in this case a high-profile and politicized one) to ESSA's language. "It shows deference to the authorizing committee," Leichty said. 
  3. The House appropriations committee might be controlled by Democrats, but Republicans run the equivalent panel in the Senate. It's a decent bet that the GOP spending bill for the Education Department won't include what the House committee report does. So Democrats might think they've settled on a smart negotiating stance when it comes time to hammer out a final bill. "It leaves open the possibility for a harder-line approach later," Leichty told us. "This is a strong position that's not statutory."
  4. The report language that "directs" DeVos to issue the guidance is the next-best thing to changing ESSA itself, Leichty also said.

It's also possible that Democrats are not particularly keen on taking direction from DeVos and changing the law as she suggested. 

School safety, and Title IV in particular, has established something of a foothold on Capitol Hill as a popular discussion topic. During the House appropriations committee's discussion of the education spending bill, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., introduced and then withdrew and amendment to allow Title IV money to be used to "harden" schools with features such as bulletproof glass and alert systems.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the House subcommittee chairwoman who oversees the Education Department's budget, responded by saying she didn't think Title IV could be spent on such projects. 

Photo: Jill Collins, a 3rd grade teacher at DeLand-Weldon Elementary School, fires off a round during a concealed carry class for teachers in June at Adventure Tactical Training in Farmer City, Ill. The class was designed to help teachers feel less vulnerable in the wake of a number of recent school shootings across the country. (David Proeber/The Pantagraph via AP)


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