DeVos scheme to divert education dollars to guns under fire
Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT | Damian Dovarganes/AP

WASHINGTON—Teachers and principals, their unions, parents of kids murdered at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, and the surviving students themselves are lambasting Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos’s scheme to divert millions of her agency’s dollars from mental health counseling and other aid to buying guns to arm teachers in schools.

Reactions to DeVos’s brainstorm ranged from an angry Douglas parent pointing out the diversion of the mental health dollars to the American Federation of School Administrators – the principals’ union – demanding that DeVos quit.

And Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, after calling DeVos’s arm-the-teachers plan “insane,” asked to meet anti-worker GOP President Donald Trump. If Trump can talk with union leaders – all of them men, though Weingarten did not say so – on trade with Mexico, then he can talk with teachers’ union leaders on guns in schools, the middle school teacher from New York City said.

Both Weingarten and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, a primary school teacher from Salt Lake City, are women. So are three-fourths of the teachers DeVos wants to arm. NEA called demands for arming teachers the #2 problem schools face this fall. Money, or lack of it, is #1.

The New York Times reported DeVos, who never went to a public school and who won the Ed Department job over the strong protests of parents, teachers and congressional Democrats, “is eyeing a program in federal education law, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, that makes no mention of prohibiting weapons purchases,” to fund putting the guns in schools.

That legal silence, the Times said, would let DeVos “use her discretion to approve any state or district plans to use grant funding for firearms and firearm training, unless Congress clarifies the law or bans such funding through legislative action.”

After the massacre in Florida, some small rural school districts, in red states or heavily Republican areas, ordered teachers to carry guns, after appropriate training. By contrast, several “blue” and “purple” states, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, ban guns in schools statewide.

“We knew Betsy DeVos would try to do the bidding of the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers, but to even consider diverting resources used to support poor kids to flood schools with more guns is beyond the recklessness we believed she was willing to pursue,” said Weingarten.

“Instead of after-school programs or counselors, programs that are critical for creating safe and welcoming schools and addressing the mental health needs of kids, DeVos wants to turn schools into armed fortresses and make kids and educators less safe. She wants to turn the U.S. government into an arms dealer for schools. That’s insane.”

“Educators, students and parents have made clear that they don’t want more guns in schools, they want to teach and learn.”

Weingarten also wrote to Trump that both he and DeVos – who won the Ed Department job after a career in Michigan of trashing public schools and their teachers and being a GOP big giver – need to think through the implications of arming teachers, and realize that even teachers who are NRA members don’t want the guns in schools.

“As a union representing educators and school staff across the country, including at Stoneman Douglas High School, our voice is critical to this debate,” Weingarten wrote. “We also represent the educators in Newtown, Conn.’ – where six teachers and 20 elementary school kids were murdered in a prior mass shooting – “and have, through these tragic events, developed a deep understanding of the supports and resources needed to help educators, children and communities following gun massacres.

“While we are delighted you recently met with some union leaders to discuss America’s trade deals, we ask you show the same respect when it comes to our schools — and that you meet with teacher union leaders so we can discuss how to ensure schools are safe sanctuaries and can share our concerns about arming teachers. Schools need to be safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses.”

NEA, the nation’s largest union, made the same points in its list of problems facing the nation’s schools.

“Educators understand if students don’t feel safe at school, achievement suffers. It’s the paramount duty of everyone in the community – and the politicians who represent them – to help create safe learning spaces,” the union said.

“Arming teachers and school staff is not the answer. According to an NEA survey, seven in 10 educators said arming school personnel would be ineffective at preventing gun violence in schools and two-thirds said they would feel less safe if school personnel were armed.”

NEA quoted Norwich, Conn., elementary school teacher Corinne McComb: “We don’t want to be armed. We want better services for our students: More psychologists and counselors who can be present for the students more than one day a week or month. We need services for families. We have the money, we can do this.”

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was one of the 14 students – and three AFT-member teachers – massacred at Douglas High, angrily tweeted: “DeVos, after my daughter was murdered, you yelled ‘Don’t talk about guns, talk about mental health.’ Your brain-dead plan will pull money from mental health.”

New School Administrators President Ernest Logan called DeVos’s arm-the-teachers scheme “outright dangerous.”

“Her reckless leadership and her failure to adequately implement basic student programs is now becoming a serious threat to student safety,” Logan added. And to prevent any further such sneaky tricks by DeVos, Logan asked Congress to write a ban on using federal funds to arm teachers into the money bill for the Education Department for the fiscal year starting October 1.

The Senate just passed its version of that money bill, increasing money for the student support grants by $125 million – 26 percent – to $512 million. The money would “support a wide range of activities including school counseling and school-based mental health programs,” the Senate report on the money bill said.

Ironically, if Trump had had his way on the federal education budget for the coming fiscal year, DeVos wouldn’t have the money to divert to her arm-the-teachers scheme. Trump’s budget blueprint proposed zero funding for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants.

Jaclyn Corin, a Douglas shooting survivor and co-founder of March For Our Lives – which, led by the Douglas survivors, embarked on a nationwide crusade to halt gun violence and change laws – tweeted: “Betsy DeVos’ plan to let schools use federal money to buy guns for teachers is yet another reason why it is vital to vote.  If you are ineligible, you can still organize, join a local org, educate others, canvass, lobby… We can & we will fix this mess.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.