A debate over using federal grants to arm teachers dominated Tuesday’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, Education Week reports. In particular, Democrats — as well as gun control advocates who came to protest — vocally opposed the idea, which Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reportedly considered.
Critics say using funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to arm teachers wastes money and wouldn’t make schools safer. The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said it was “reckless and irresponsible” and “would contradict the equity mandates in ESSA,” while Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) defended DeVos, saying ESSA lets states and districts choose how to use the money.
Senators also discussed how states are using ESSA to hold schools accountable for student performance. Democrats and education experts said the Department of Education approved ESSA plans that violate the law because they don’t account for the performance of certain groups, including students with disabilities, The 74 reported. Alexander stood up for the department and said it isn’t doing anything wrong.
The controversy over using federal funds to arm teachers has only grown more intense. DeVos has since said she wouldn’t reach a verdict without advice from Congress, but it’s clear that the committee members are not close to compromise. Lawmakers like Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) say that when ESSA was written, they didn’t intend for it to be used to fund gun purchases. Witnesses at the hearing — two state education department officials, a superintendent and a nonprofit president — say they know of no research that says armed teachers make schools safer, The 74 notes. And if a chunk of already limited education funding goes to buying weapons, that’s even less money for other things, including mental health services or technology.
There are others, including Alexander, who argue that regardless of whether one supports arming teachers, ESSA lets states decide how they want to approach drug prevention and creating safe schools. There are also supporters of arming teachers, including President Donald Trump, who showed enthusiasm for the proposal and for letting states make the final call. And on top of that, a number states let staff members have or access firearms on school grounds — and hundreds of schools followed through, The New York Times reported. Until Congress comes to a clearer conclusion, it’s unclear what states will — and won’t — be able to do in terms of arming their schools’ teachers, as well as what policy changes might be made.
More broadly, ESSA as a whole is also under debate. When it passed in 2015, the law had bipartisan support, but skeptics have questioned its implementation and whether it’s really pushing states to be more accountable for boosting all students’ performance. State accountability plans have to include five indicators, but the law also takes a much more hands-off approach. Many states don’t include subgroups, like English learners, in their overall ratings, and critics say these students will fall under the radar if states don't require districts to specifically monitor and report the performance of underserved populations. As of now, it’s still unclear how effective ESSA will be and whether it will truly boost accountability, but school leaders have a responsibility to be transparent and to help all student groups boost their performance using evidence-based intervention methods — even if that means the stats aren't as pretty in the beginning.