President Trump threatened to cut off federal funding for schools that don’t restart in-person classes by the fall and assailed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reopening schools, calling them “very tough,” “expensive” and “very impractical.”
"The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!" Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.
New guidance coming: Shortly after, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters at a briefing of the White House coronavirus task force that the CDC would issue additional guidance next week. “The president said today, we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough,” Pence said.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC director, reminded reporters at the briefing that the health agency’s recommendations are “guidance, not requirements” and emphasized that the guidelines are not intended “to be used as a rationale to keep schools closed.”
An administration push to reopen: The president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have ramped up a push this week to get children back in classrooms this fall, a crucial step toward a more full-fledged economic recovery since it would better enable working parents to return to their jobs. Trump’s reelection prospects may well depend on the state of the pandemic and economy as voters cast their ballots.
Trump said Tuesday he would “put pressure on governors and everybody else” to reopen schools, and DeVos told Fox News host Tucker Carlson Tuesday night that she is “very seriously” looking at withholding federal funds from schools that don't open their classrooms. Administration officials emphasized Wednesday that keeping schools closed carries risks as well and could result in students falling behind academically or suffering health and nutritional effects. The White House notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics has said it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
Setting up clashes: Trump’s latest push will set the stage for clashes with Democrats, some of whom have already criticized the administration’s approach as well as with teachers’ unions and state and local officials. A spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Bloomberg News that Trump has repeatedly ignored medical experts and needs to “get serious about crushing the virus instead of asking parents, teachers and children to risk their lives.”
Teachers unions say that while they want to get kids back to their classrooms, reopening must happen safely. They’ve also pushed for more than $100 billion in additional funding to that end.
“Trump and DeVos woke up yesterday about the importance of public schooling. They demanded schools reopen but they didn’t offer any plans or resources to support to schools. They didn’t offer any guidance on keeping kids safe,” Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, tweeted Tuesday night. She later added: “Reopening schools doesn’t happen with an all-caps tweet or WH photo op. It happens w/ careful planning to meets students’ needs, methodical attention to preventing virus spread in schools, & sufficient federal resources to help us get there.”
The federal funding question: The federal government provides billions of dollars for low-income schools and special education at the K-12 level, but that represents only a small portion of overall education spending, with the vast majority of school funding — about 90% — coming from state and local budgets.
Trump’s threat to block federal funding may not have much bite. “Trump can't unilaterally cut current federal funding for schools,” CNN explains. “However, he could possibly restrict some recent pandemic relief funding -- which would likely be challenged in court -- and refuse to sign future legislation for federal grants and bailouts for schools.”
Evan Hollander, spokesperson for the Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement cited by Politico that the president doesn't have the authority to withhold federal funds.
"President Trump is repeating the same mistakes that have made America’s coronavirus pandemic the worst in the world, attempting to override science in search of political advantage," Hollander said. "When it comes to our schools, Congress funds federal education programs that serve some of the most vulnerable young people in our country. The President has no authority to cut off funding for these students, and threatening to do so to prop up his flailing campaign is offensive."
Still, The New York Times reports that Trump’s funding threat “carries real weight” because the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March gave DeVos wide latitude in deciding how to distribute tens of millions of dollars in aid to school districts.
“Those districts are now desperate for funds as they try to find ways to open classrooms with far fewer students and staff in each, to maintain social distancing, to test students and staff for the coronavirus, and to provide masks and other protective gear,” the Times reports. “Education groups have estimated that they need at least $200 billion in additional funding to reopen next school year.” DeVos, meanwhile, reportedly said Tuesday that only 1% of the $13.5 billion in relief funding for K-12 school districts had been claimed.
DeVos and Pence both acknowledged that federal money represents a fraction of overall education spending and said the administration would look for other ways to encourage states to return students to classrooms. “As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we're going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school,” Pence told reporters Wednesday.