The news that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is studying whether to allow districts to tap a $1.1 billion pool of grant funding to arm teachers has drawn an angry reaction from the ed-tech community.
Supporters of improving tech in schools are protective of that grant funding, which comes from Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The money is designed for a variety of uses, including not only improved ed-tech, but also efforts to promote safe and healthy schools and a well-rounded education.
Specifically, ESSA says that at least 20 percent of Title IV block grants must support both of those last two priorities. School districts can devote up to 60 percent of their money to education technology, though they don’t have to do that.
Many ed-tech advocates see Title IV as a valuable source of money for districts’ digital needs. And they were dismayed by the notion that the Trump administration appears to be contemplating allowing the money to go toward firearms and firearms training.
“It is unconscionable that the secretary of education is considering using her authority to subsidize gun purchases in schools with funding that was congressionally authorized to buy computers for students and provide teacher professional development,” said Richard Culatta, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, in a statement. “We strongly urge Congress to inform the department that this action would be both irresponsible and should be illegal under the provisions of the law.”
Culatta served as director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology during the Obama administration.
The news that DeVos was considering allowing districts to use Title IV money for firearms purchases and training was first reported by the New York Times. A Department of Education official told EdWeek’s Andrew Ujifusa that the news was overblown.
“The department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety,” a spokeswoman for the agency said. “The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios.”
In addition, a senior Trump administration official said that the question of using Title IV money for gun purchases first arose in a letter from Texas state officials who inquired whether grants could flow to that purpose. (Texas law allows school districts to arm school staff under certain conditions.)
And some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill told the Times that they were wary of preventing state and local officials from using Title IV for purchasing guns. ESSA, those lawmakers noted, was designed to cede decisionmaking to state and local officials.
A ‘Raid’ of a Federal Program?
The national Title IV-A Coalition, which supports the grant program, also denounced the grant funding-for-arming teachers idea, arguing that it runs afoul of ESSA’s intentions.
The coalition said in a statement that Title IV funding is meant to support “ongoing educational services” in areas such as mental health and violence prevention, “not the one-time purchase of equipment, including firearms.”
The coalition is comprised of a number of school organizations, including some focused specifically on ed-tech: the Consortium for School Networking, which represents chief technology officers; and the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
The department’s “willingness to raid a federal program” focused on mental health, music and art education, STEM, and tech “is absolutely preposterous and in the opinion of the many diverse organizations we represent, frankly dangerous,” the group said.
The department’s consideration of the issue comes in the aftermath of a succession of deadly school shootings that have deeply shaken education communities and prompted calls for stronger gun restrictions. The massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in particular, galvanized many teachers and students to push for policies to increase safety on school campuses.
In the wake of the Parkland shootings, President Trump created a school safety commission, which DeVos is chairing. The commission has drawn criticism because it is not exploring the role guns play in school shootings, with a few limited exceptions.
The Trump administration has sought to eliminate Title IV grants entirely in its last two budget proposals, for fiscal 2018 and 2019. The program, however, has friends in Congress, which funded it at $1.1 billion in fiscal 2018.
There are some indications of how districts want to use Title IV money for tech upgrades.
In a survey of district officials released earlier this year by the AASA — the School Superintendents Association — and Whiteboard Advisors, 55 percent or respondents said that their biggest priority for Title IV ed-tech spending is on professional development and promoting collaboration. Forty-four percent said that blended-learning strategies were a top need.
Photo: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stepping out of a private school in New York City in May. Mark Lennihan, AP