US education secretary floats plan to use federal funds to arm teachers

By Khara Sikhan
30 August 2018

US Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reportedly considering the diversion of federal school money normally used to provide mental health resources for students and expand learning options and classroom technology to purchase guns instead. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting last February, which killed 17, the Trump administration is calling for “hardening” schools and arming teachers to the horror of educators and students around the country.

DeVos created a federal school safety commission and held “listening sessions” in Kentucky and Washington, DC, which featured speakers calling for privatizing education with school vouchers and increasing police known euphemistically as “school resource officers.” Many participants, however, called for additional counselors and mental health specialists. Even at these carefully vetted events virtually no one endorsed the Trump demand to arm teachers.

The commission is expected to include a section in its report on the best practices for arming school personnel. In rural Lee County, Virginia, the school board has already voted to use grant money for arming teachers. “It’s a cheap way to add security to our schools and the best option we could do,” school board Chairman Mike Kidwell said. “Any state or federal funds, in my opinion, that could go toward arming someone like this is money well spent.”

Both Oklahoma and Texas have now asked for clarification on the legality of using federal funds through the Student Support and Academic Grants section of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to purchase firearms. The federal fund contains $1.1 billion specified for ensuring “safe and healthy students,” emphasizing access to a well-rounded education, which includes “a wide variety of disciplines—such as music, the arts, social studies, environmental education, computer science and civics.” It makes no mention of arming teachers or militarizing schools.

DeVos has not responded to these requests yet, but could choose to approve a school district or state’s plan to use the money for firearms or training teachers to use them unless Congress intervenes. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate education committee, said states have the right “to use those federal dollars to make schools safer for children.” The ESSA, passed under the Obama administration in 2015, gave states far more decision-making powers over federal dollars than previously.

Meanwhile, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the Parkland school shooting, opened its doors two weeks ago with a massive police presence. Students walked to class amid German shepherd attack dogs, helicopters, three resource officers, three security specialists, and a dozen campus monitors patrolling the halls at all times. The cost for this outlay was $6.5 million.

Michigan school districts are allotting millions towards upgrading schools—not for teacher education, improving technology, or ensuring clean water, but for emergency alert systems. School staff are meant to act in case of emergency, using ballistic shields anchored to outer doors or bricks to break windows, and are being trained in managing defense systems.

The Democratic Party promotes gun control as the antidote to school violence—in 2014, the Obama administration provided twenty-six US school districts with assault rifles, grenade launchers, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. The Department of Defense’s 1033 program has shipped over $5.1 billion in military gear to law enforcement agencies, college campuses and school districts across the US.

Meanwhile the massive defunding of public education spearheaded under the Obama administration and implemented under both Democrats and Republicans has left schools unable to hire sufficient teachers, school counselors, nurses or support staff. Florida enacted statewide measures to require police or armed guards at every school after the Parkland shooting, but unsurprisingly districts are struggling to meet this mandate. Florida’s total state funding between 2008 and 2015 was cut by 22 percent, the second highest drop in the United States.

Likewise, education spending has also fallen sharply across the board throughout Texas since the 2008 recession. Recently, the state was criticized by the US Department of Education for failing to provide adequate special education. Only 8.6 percent of Texas students are funded to receive special education, with thousands of students left without access.

A report issued last week shows that schools are bereft of counselors to aid and advise students. The student-counselor ratio is a scandalous 482 to 1, according to the recent data. “Our intention in producing this data is to shed light on the often unmanageable caseloads public school counselors must serve,” the report says. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no more than 250 students for each counselor, but only three states, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming, reported that level of staffing in the new study.

The defunding of public education and the militarization of schools are part of the relentless class war that has long been waged against the working class. The epidemic of school violence in the US is the result of the breakdown of American society, the endless wars waged by the United States and the promotion of militarism and violence and the explosive growth of social inequality. While the super-rich have pocketed untold fortunes both political parties express nothing but contempt for the masses of working people and youth who face ever more desperate conditions.

During the wave of student walkouts and mass protests that culminated in the “March for our lives” demonstration in Washington D.C. on March 24, which involved nearly one million protesters, participants’ demands went way beyond the Democratic Party’s call for gun control, and included demands for full funding for public education and mental health services, and an end to war and social inequality.

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