As the coronavirus crisis expands, President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he would “pressure” governors to open schools in time for the beginning of the coming school year.
He applied some pressure on Wednesday morning. In a tweet in which he accused Democrats, with no evidence, of wanting to keep schools closed for political reasons related to the November election, Trump said he “may cut off funding” if schools are not opened.
Facts First: Trump can’t unilaterally cut current federal funding for schools. 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.
Congress holds the power of the purse, and while Trump and his administration have previously proposed cutting federal grants for schools as well as the Education Department’s budget, Congress has continued to reject these proposals.
Congress also has oversight power when it comes to federal grants. A May 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service on federal grants to state and local governments states “as with all legislation generally, Congress oversees the grant’s implementation to ensure that the federal administrating agency is held accountable.”
On Wednesday, House Democrats dismissed the idea that Trump could unilaterally cut funding for schools.
“Congress provides federal education funding to support some of the most vulnerable young people in our country,” said Evan Hollander, a spokesman for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. “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.”
Also, according to the Congressional Research Service, the federal government provided 8.3% of funding for public elementary and secondary schools in 2015-2016, the last year for which a detailed funding breakdown was available. State governments provided 47%, local governments 44.8%.
The bulk of federal funding for elementary and secondary schools is focused on disadvantaged students. The biggest chunk, about $16 billion in 2019, went to Title I grants, which go to schools with large proportions of low-income students. The second-biggest chunk, about $13.5 billion, was for special education.
Given the distribution of federal education funds, Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, told CNN any cuts to federal funding would disproportionately impact low-income students.
“Most federal money goes to low-income kids, so any cuts would hurt that slice of the school population,” Carnoy said. “Not going to hurt rich school districts. It’s pretty perverse.”
At Wednesday’s coronavirus taskforce press briefing, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked Vice President Mike Pence to explain why Trump was threatening to cut funding from schools at a time when educators say they need more money to they can safely reopen.
Pence replied that Trump’s tweet represented a “determination to provide the kind of leadership from the federal level that says we’re going to get our kids back to school because that’s where they belong, and we know based upon what our best health officials tell us we can do that in a safe and responsible way.”
Pence pointed to the $13.5 billion in federal education funds included in the Cares Act to support states in the midst of the pandemic, and also said he senses “a great desire among governors around the country to find a way forward, and we made it very clear to them we’re going to partner with them providing them with the resources to impact that and also the supplies.”
In an interview on CNN Wednesday morning, Obama-era administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan reiterated that the President lacks the authority to actually cut off education funding.
“No. Again he just, he bullies, he threatens it, the truth of the matter is very little money K-12 comes from the federal government,” said Duncan.
Sean Corcoran, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, told CNN, “President Trump’s threat is almost — though not entirely — an empty one.”
“States have reacted strongly in the past to threats to cut federal funding,” Corcoran added. “But ultimately it is up to Congress — who has the power of the purse — to make these cuts, and I don’t see that happening.”
What can Trump do?
A Senate GOP source says that Trump has little authority to unilaterally cut off funding for schools. But if Trump wanted, the source says, the Trump administration could issue an interim final rule to block funding enacted in the March CARES Act for schools that don’t reopen. The law provided $13 billion for school districts to cover Covid-19 costs. But going that route to block the funding administratively would undoubtedly lead to a court battle.
Many school and political officials argue that additional federal funding is greatly needed to safely reopen schools as state budgets have been significantly reduced in the wake of the pandemic. Trump has the power to reject any aid package that has not already been passed.
But his own party allies have been pushing for more pandemic-related education funding, not less.
On Wednesday, Pence also said the White House will seek to tie some funding in the next recovery package to schools reopening, a tall order that would require bipartisan support.
“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 said.
Senate Republicans are planning to unveil a stimulus bill that includes federal spending to reopen schools and childcare facilities which could be used for retrofitting classrooms, expanding busing so fewer kids would be on a bus together, paying for additional testing, technology for distance learning and PPE, according to multiple GOP aides.
While a price tag hasn’t been settled on, it could be more than $30 billion for school districts — which superintendents have called for — to cover the costs of reopening and ensuring their schools can deal with measures to limit the spread of the virus.
Democrats have also included proposals to get schools reopened in their stimulus proposals.