Certainly no Republican (with the possible exception of the president who nominated her) has done more than DeVos has to antagonize and energize Democratic and independent voters, and particularly the student and parent activists awakened by the Parkland, Florida, school shootings. Confirmed by a single vote in February 2017 when Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaker, DeVos has spent most of her first year-and-a-half in office trying to emasculate the department Donald Trump selected her to lead.
This is not an act of insubordination, but a sabotage mission that has enjoyed the White House’s enthusiastic support. The big idea: Slash billions of dollars earmarked for public schools and divert part of the savings to initiatives to expand for-profit charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools.
It is of a piece with the agenda DeVos and her clan promoted with their privately bankrolled Great Lakes Education Project before Trump handed them the keys to the U.S. Department of Education. So far, though, members of the U.S. Congress have displayed little interest in DeVos’ grand scheme, routinely ignoring the administration’s proposals to decimate federal funding for education and passing budgets that maintain or increase support for the public school districts they represent.
Lawmakers have also taken pains to limit the administration’s discretion in spending funds earmarked for student safety. Just this past spring, after the president responded to another cluster of school shootings with a proposal to arm teachers, Congress allocated $50 billion to help local school districts bolster security but explicitly forbade them from spending the money to purchase firearms.
But now, according to the New York Times, DeVos and her merry band of public school saboteurs believe they have discovered a way to tap a $1 billion grant program established to benefit students in the nation’s most underfunded school districts to pay for the guns Congress forbade them to buy with school safety funds. Money allocated under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is supposed to be used to improve learning conditions and promote digital literacy. But because its congressional sponsors failed to include language specifically barring its use for firearm purchases, the Department of Education is considering allowing schools to use the money to purchase firearms for school staffers.
Until now, the Times reports, the Department of Education has encouraged grant recipients to spend ESSA money on mental health counseling, dropout prevention initiatives and programs to facilitate the re-entry of students returning to school from the juvenile justice system.
But departmental researchers have proposed that gun purchases could fall under ESSA’s charter to improve learning conditions in schools that serve low-income students. If it also bolsters revenues for firearm manufacturers and gun shop dealers, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
Surely anyone with the money and executive authority at DeVos’ command has the confidence to tell subordinates and right-wing friends when they’ve proposed something profoundly stupid. So I assume that if this lunatic scheme goes forward, it will be because the Trump administration’s czarina of education thinks its a genuinely productive way to spend taxpayer dollars meant to promote student achievement.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could set educators’ teeth on edge more quickly than by proposing to divert money for kids to subsidize the gun industry. But this is exactly the kind of outside-the-pencil-box thinking that has made DeVos more unpopular than Trump in some voter focus groups. It’s also the reason the way you’ll see her face in so many Democrat-sponsored political ads during the next six months. Republicans exploit their base’s antipathy for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in much the same way.
Where can DeVos go from here? Maybe money earmarked for students with asthma disabilities could be diverted to subsidize coal production. Perhaps federal funds for English-language education could be repurposed to build a wall on the Mexican border.
But she had better hurry. There’s an election coming, and it’s only a matter of time before Republicans concerned about their party’s future realize that public education isn’t the only thing DeVos is sabotaging from within.
Brian Dickerson in the Free Press’ editorial page editor.
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