Education Health On the Hill

Trump Threatens to Cut Funding for Schools Unwilling or Unable to Reopen

As the United States faces a surge in reported COVID-19 cases, schools have recently been faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to reopen as the fall approaches. Given local, state, and federal guidelines, as well as those put in place by the CDC, returning to business as usual seems daunting, if not impossible, for schools. In spite of the dangers associated with welcoming students back to school this fall, President Trump and Betsy DeVos threatened to cut funding to schools that do not fully reopen.

On Tuesday, the White House hosted a roundtable discussion attended by educators and members of the Trump administration. During this discussion, Trump asserted that he planned to “put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.” In a press briefing, Pence added that the administration would be “looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school.”

Though faced with mounting criticism for such statements, on Wednesday, Trump and DeVos forcefully threatened states and school districts unwilling to fully reopen in the fall. In a tweet, Trump stated that his administration “may cut off funding” to institutions that do not reopen. DeVos also said that the Department of Education is “very seriously” considering cutting funding to schools that do not reopen and claimed that those unwilling to reopen may be “fear mongering and making excuses.” Both Trump and DeVos have praised Florida’s plan to fully reopen all public schools in the fall.

The CDC issued guidelines for reopening schools that predate the recent surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases. These guidelines suggest that the safest school settings would require entirely remote-learning; moderate risk school settings would require accommodations to reduce the density of students, stagger schedules, and combine remote and in-person instruction; and the most dangerous school settings would return to business as usual. Trump has criticized these guidelines as being “very tough and expensive.”

On Thursday morning, the CDC’s director, Robert Redfield, said the CDC does not plan to alter its guidelines for the reopening of schools. However, in light of Trump’s attacks, Redfield said the center would “provide additional reference documents to aid communities in trying to reopen K-12s.”

Though Trump has threatened funding to schools, such a threat may be hollow. A 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service found that in recent years, while the federal government was responsible for approximately eight percent of funding for public K-12 schools, state and local governments were responsible for approximately 47 and 44 percent of funding respectively. The distribution of federal funds for public education is generally directed towards disadvantaged students; thus, efforts and threats to cut federal funding will disproportionately affect such students. Moreover, while some estimates suggest that schools could require up to $200 billion to safely reopen, just $13.5 billion has been made available for schools through the CARES Act.

The president and his administration have faced strong pushback for their most recent threats. Although groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics have suggested that continued remote learning could have detrimental effects on children’s health and development, given recent spikes in reported cases of COVID-19, the health risk for educators, families, and students seems may outweigh the benefits of in-person learning. According to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos demanding schools reopen but failing to produce a plan or the resources required is not doing what kids and educators need.”

Sources: The New York Times 7/8/2020, 6/30/2020; NPR 7/7/2020, 7/8/2020; Politico 7/8/2020; Twitter 7/8/2020; The Washington Post 7/8/2020; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 5/19/2020; CNN Politics 7/9/2020, 7/8/2020; Congressional Research Service 8/26/2019; CNBC 7/8/2020