During a listening session on live television in February, President Donald Trump, surrounded by students and parents directly affected by school shootings, offered a bold suggestion. He highlighted a coach who had died protecting students just one week prior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. “If he had a firearm, he wouldn’t have had to run, he would’ve shot, and that would’ve been the end of it,” he said. “If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly.”
Teachers, administrators, and policy advocates around the country immediately scoffed at the idea of arming teachers. “This is bar none, the worst theory of action I’ve ever heard,” Shanna Peeples, a teacher from Texas and the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, tweeted in response to the president’s remarks. “Texas law allows schools to arm their teachers. That’s not a good thing. None of us are trained to respond to threats in the way law enforcement is.” Congress has positioned itself firmly against arming teachers, too, making it clear in recent legislation that it doesn’t want federal funding used for that purpose.
But on Wednesday night, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration might be closer to arming teachers than anyone expected. Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, is considering a proposal, according to the Times, to allow school districts to pay for firearms and firearm training through a grant program in the federal law governing K–12 policy known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
The grants, which amount to $1.1 billion, are called Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants—Title IV is the shorthand for them—and they provide education funding to states for three categories of initiatives: “well-rounded education,” “safe and healthy students,” and “effective use of technology.” It’s the most flexible part of ESSA because states are able to define what those things mean and determine the best ways to achieve those goals—the federal government just has to sign off. To receive the funds, states have to submit an application to the Education Department, and once the state application is approved, districts apply for that funding from the state.
The proposal DeVos is reportedly mulling would allow the applications for funding to include firearms purchases and still be approved. States would likely have to include such a request in the safe-and-healthy-students category—which has to equal at least 20 percent of a district’s allocation.
The Education Department lists several examples of what it means to promote safe and healthy schools, including suicide and bullying prevention, child-sexual-abuse awareness and prevention, and drug and violence prevention. It doesn’t explicitly include guns. But the law doesn’t explicitly say the funds can’t be used for guns. According to Education Week, the issue was first raised in a letter from Texas officials who inquired about whether the grants could be used for firearms purchases. (Texas is one of the states that allows school districts to arm staff.)
It’s a loophole that the original architects of ESSA had not been thinking about when they wrote the legislation. Several congressional aides whom I’ve spoken with said the news caught them off guard.
“I am certain that Congress never intended—or even imagined—the Education Department would use Title IV funds to buy guns for school teachers,” Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia who is the ranking member on the House Education Committee, said in a statement. “However, even if there is confusion about Title IV’s flexibility regarding school safety, Congress made our position clear when we provided funds for school safety and violence prevention in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.” The bipartisan STOP School Violence Act passed the House, 407–10, and the bill clearly stated that the extra funding could not be used to arm teachers.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, also played a major role in crafting ESSA. “I’m not a fan of arming teachers,” the former governor of Tennessee and U.S. secretary of education, told me in a statement. But the senator didn’t seem to rule out the idea that states could choose to do so if they wanted. “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.”
Senator Patty Murray, the ranking member on the Senate Education Committee, was much less willing to let states make that decision. “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 in a statement.
But the loophole in the ESSA law remains, and lawmakers are acting quickly to clarify it. On Thursday, Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who became one of the most outspoken advocates for preventing gun violence after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, introduced a bill to prevent the use of Title IV funds for the purpose of arming teachers.
The administration contends that the idea to allow states to use the Title IV funding to arm teachers is just that, an idea, and one that wasn’t theirs to begin with. But it’s an audacious and unpopular one—on both sides of the aisle.