Trump Threatens to Cut Off Federal Funding to Schools That Don’t Reopen in the Fall
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.”
Could Trump really cut school funding? 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.
House Dems Look to Boost Spending by $250 Billion
House Democrats are looking to increase federal spending by about $250 billion next year — a boost that would exceed budget levels agreed to in a bipartisan deal reached last year with Republicans and the Trump administration.
The Democratic spending bills introduced by House appropriators this week would bring discretionary spending to more than $1.6 trillion, a 16% increase over current levels, The Hill’s Niv Elis reports.
Democrats say the pandemic has raised the need for additional funding, which Elis says would cover areas ranging from rural broadband and transportation infrastructure to health care and global coronavirus relief. Republicans counter that the Democratic proposal will make it harder to reach agreement with the Senate on 2021 spending levels.
“In any other year, a quarter-trillion dollars tacked onto a series of regular spending bills would be unheard of,” Elis writes. “But the economic emergency caused by the pandemic has turned it into a rounding error, as Congress has approved trillions of dollars to fight COVID-19, including a record $2.2 trillion for the CARES Act in March. … Even budget hawks have acknowledged that deficit spending is needed in times like these, with austerity reserved for boom times.”
Still, Marc Goldwein, head of policy for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, warned that the pandemic shouldn’t be used as an excuse for non-emergency spending. “The emergency designation is there for emergencies, which means things that are urgent, unforeseen and temporary,” Goldwein told The Hill. “The question that I would ask is if the broadband, the housing, is that really in light of the coronavirus emergency? It’s not appropriate to use an emergency situation for building roads.”
The bottom line: The Democratic proposal may raise the chances that the annual appropriations process gets bogged down in partisan fights. “Any long-term standoff between congressional Democrats and Republicans would just increase the odds of Congress kicking the can down the road with a continuing resolution, dealing with spending legislation after the November elections, perhaps even into January,” Elis writes.
House Subcommittee Approves $695 Billion Defense Spending Bill
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on Wednesday approved $694.6 billion in spending authority for the Department of Defense in fiscal year 2021, providing an increase of $1.3 billion above this year’s spending level, which is still $3.7 billion below what President Trump requested in his budget. The bill would also provide a 3% pay raise for servicemembers. It next goes to the full Appropriations Committee for markup.
CQ defense reporter John M. Donnelly writes that congressional appropriators have once again found creative ways to shift around billions of dollars and provide money for programs that were not in the president’s budget. “And — this is the hard part — they paid for it all by dredging up at least $5 billion from obscure sources that virtually no one but they knew about, and few will ever be able to explain,” he says.
“This year, the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee’s nearly $695 billion bill … manages to bankroll billions in lawmakers' priorities that the president did not request in his budget, while at the same time subtracting relatively few things that were requested.
“And yet, as if by magic, the total amount of money in the House bill still comes in about $3.7 billion less than the president’s plan.
“When Senate appropriators weigh in soon with their own companion Defense spending bill, it too will reflect the same legerdemain, snatching billions of dollars seemingly out of thin air.”
The House’s Defense bill includes $1 billion for what Donnelly describes as “a special fund that the National Guard later taps to pay for still-to-be-determined equipment”; $4.1 billion more than requested in the president’s budget for military hardware, including $2.4 billion for new warships; and money for medical research — “$513 million for cancer research and $175 million for psychological and brain-injury research” that wasn’t requested by the Pentagon and which critics say shouldn’t be part of the Defense budget.