In May 2018, a superintendent in rural Oklahoma requested to use federal grant money for firearms training, sparking a debate over whether or not the Education Department could block such a move. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos claimed she was forced to stay neutral, writing in a letter to the House Education Committee that she would not bar states from using federal funds to purchase guns or gun training for schools. “Congress did not authorize me or the Department to make those decisions,” DeVos wrote, adding that she would not “legislate via fiat from the Department.”
Legislating by fiat, as it turns out, would have been unnecessary. According to an internal, 14-page Education Department memo released by House Democrats on Wednesday, DeVos did have the power to halt states from buying firearms for school districts. “The Department’s Office of the General Counsel has advised that the Secretary has discretion to interpret the broad language of the statute as to its permissiveness regarding the purchase of firearms and training on the use of firearms,” says the July 2018 memo.
Written by Jason Botel, a Trump appointee to the Department, the memo proposed a “compromise” in which the Department would allow federal grants to be “used to train school staff on the use of guns,” but stopped short of letting the funds be used for firearm purchases. The compromise would “support one necessary component of arming school staff but not expose the Department to the political liability were the funds to be allowed to purchase the weapons themselves.” But as Politico notes, an Education staffer appears to have checked off the most permissive allowance on gun sales:
The version of the memo released by the committee contains a handwritten “x” next to “YES, funds may be used to purchase firearms for teachers and to train teachers on the use of firearms.” It wasn’t clear who made that marking. The memo was addressed to Kent Talbert, a senior adviser to DeVos.
Representative Jahana Hayes, a former teacher, discussed the document with DeVos, asking why she did not weigh into the debate last summer over arming teachers in Texas and Oklahoma. “In light of the contents of this memo, you have the ability to make a decision,” Hayes told DeVos. “Your silence is a decision. You have the authority to say that we cannot use federal funds to arm teachers.”
Hayes then asked DeVos if she would use that authority to block future use of federal funds to buy guns for schools. DeVos balked, answering that, “This is a matter for states and local communities,” and that, “Congress has the authority to make that action.”
DeVos — who once said guns might have a place in rural schools to protect student “from potential grizzlies” — has had a tough few weeks of testimony in front of the House. In her Wednesday appearance before the House Education Committee, DeVos also told lawmakers that she is “not familiar” with the affirmative action guidelines for schools that the administration got rid of last summer, or the Supreme Court case off which those rules were based.
In March, DeVos appeared before the House Appropriations subcommittee on education, where she was forced to answer why the Education Department intended to cut $8.5 billion from its budget, including a very high-profile attempt to revoke all federal funding for the Special Olympics. These appearances, to the detriment of the Education secretary, reaffirm the value of a House controlled by the opposition party: All of DeVos’s recent gaffes in front of lawmakers have been during her first appearances in front of the House since Democrats regained control of the chamber.