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Betsy DeVos considers allowing schools to use federal funds to buy guns

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during a tour of Ashland Elementary School in Manassas, Va., in April. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Sarah L. Voisin

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 that 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. Earlier 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 department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety," said spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill. "The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios."

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 rules of the program may leave her little choice.

"They are uncomfortable with the substance but they feel like they don't have a choice," said one Republican who is close to the agency and who spoke with officials there about this on Thursday. "They're getting jammed by Texas and Oklahoma."

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.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a leading voice for new gun restrictions, said he would introduce an amendment to a spending bill pending in the Senate to block the idea, though an aide said he wasn't expecting majority Republicans to allow a vote on it.

The conversation about using federal funds for guns appears to be unfolding independently from deliberations of a school safety commission created by Trump that is led by DeVos. The commission is expected to include a section in its report on best practices for arming school personnel, several people familiar with that process aid.

During its public meetings, the commission has heard strong arguments on both sides about guns in schools. The commission's last field visit is set for Thursday in Las Vegas, with a final "listening session" planned for next week.

The question about use of the federal grant program, known as Title IV, was posed by the Texas Education Agency, which wanted clarity on how it can use the grant funding, according to federal and state officials. The state's questions included whether Texas could use the funding to arm and train school marshals, who are sometimes teachers, as well as other school security measures, according to an email sent to the federal department by a Texas official.

DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the question originated from a regional school official and that the state forwarded it to Washington seeking clarity.

A request for clarification also came from an Oklahoma school district, a department official said.

Opponents said that funding gun purchases would mean pulling funding for mental health and other programs.

"Devos, after my daughter was murdered, you yelled 'Don't talk about guns, talk about mental health,' " Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, wrote on Twitter. "Your brain dead plan will pull money from mental health."

Superintent Craig McVay, who heads the El Reno Public Schools system outside of Oklahoma City, said he would never spend the district's grant money on guns. The cash-strapped district received $46,000 through the program last year and spent it on reading and math software for its grade school students.

"We're probably going to find a different way to keep kids safe rather than spend money we've traditionally used on academic achievement," McVay said.

In rural Lee County, Virginia, school leaders recently voted to arm school employees, saying it was cheaper than hiring school resource officers or armed law enforcement personnel. School board chairman Mike Kidwell said he favored using grant money for guns.

"It's a cheap way to add security to our schools and the best option we could do," he said of arming teachers. "Any state or federal funds, in my opinion, that could go toward arming someone like this is money well spent."

Trump has repeatedly called for arming teachers as a response to the rash of mass shootings at schools. In February, he suggested paying teachers a bonus if they agree to carry weapons. At a Cabinet meeting last week, he said, "We want to harden our schools against attack." Among the solutions, he said, was "allowing qualified personnel to be armed."

At that meeting, DeVos did not endorse that idea, but she said decisions about the safety of students rests primarily with states and local communities. "Our aim isn't to impose a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, everywhere," she said.

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This article was written by Laura Meckler and Moriah Balingit, reporters for The Washington Post.

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