President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have told public school districts that they must open fully for the 2020-2021 school year during the coronavirus pandemic, and they threatened to withhold federal funding from school districts that don’t.

The threats, however, are largely just that: threats without real teeth behind them.

While presidents can in some cases legally withhold funding appropriated by Congress, they can’t do it without notifying Congress and in some cases getting approval. (Some have tried and been struck down by courts, and DeVos has been held in contempt of court as education secretary for refusing to stop collecting loans from former students of a chain of for-profit colleges that closed.)

Trump and DeVos – who often talk about the importance of local control of education – also have no authority to force schools to open at a particular time or in a specific way.

Those are state and local decisions, however much Trump and DeVos shout about it. AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said in a statement directed at Trump: “You don’t support local decision making if it’s conditional on only making choices you support.”

Trump raised the issue of reopening schools fully last week in a tweet in which he said that other countries had opened schools “with no problems.” He named four European countries that had reopened schools but did not mention they had done so only after dramatically bringing down national coronavirus infection rates, which the United States has failed to do. And he ended the tweet with this: “May cut off funding if not open!”


DeVos herself made several calls last week for schools to reopen and operate fully, meaning bringing nearly all students for five days a week, and, she said on a Fox News show that she is “very seriously” looking into withholding funds that don’t do what she wants regarding reopening.

Chris Wallace, a Fox News reporter, challenged DeVos on Sunday about her threat, saying: “Both you and the president have threatened to cut off funding for schools systems that don’t open fully in the fall. Are you and the president unilaterally going to cut off funding that’s been approved by Congress – and most of the money goes to disadvantaged students or students with disabilities?”

She responded, “If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds,” to which Wallace said, “You can’t do that! … You can’t do that unilaterally, you have to do that through Congress.”

The president does have the ability to veto any congressional legislation that includes more aid to school districts, though Congress could override his veto. The aid, however, is not targeted to any specific one and so a veto for that reason would penalize even districts that did what he wanted.

DeVos could perhaps find grants or programs over which her department controls the purse strings that could affect a school district, but it doesn’t seem likely in an environment when school districts need more money, not less, to do what she wants them to do.

Vice President Mike Pence sent mixed messages last week about the threat of cutting funding. Asked Thursday by a reporter about Trump’s threat, Pence replied: “What you heard from the president is just determination to provide the kind of leadership from the federal level to get our kids back to school. Because that’s where they belong.”


He also said “we expect” that school districts will get more support in dealing with the pandemic from the federal government on top of the $13.5 billion that Congress supplied this past spring in extra assistance as part of an economic stimulus package costing trillions of dollars.

But he expressed no urgency about it even while school superintendents have been shouting for several months that they need more aid as soon as possible. And he said that new legislation providing relief funds could be somehow linked to the reopening of schools as a way to give states a strong incentive “to get kids back in school.”

The administration could attempt to get that condition written into new legislation, but it would not have any chance in the Democratic-controlled House, which has already passed a new bill with billions of dollars in new aid for schools.