President Trump and Vice President Pence have been touting their commitment to school safety. But do the numbers add up?
“Thanks to the president’s leadership, we’re already providing nearly $2 billion more in help to local governments to ensure security at our schools and the safety of our students. It represents the single largest investment in school safety in American history.” — Vice President Mike Pence, in remarks in Indianapolis, May 18, 2018
“I recently signed legislation that includes more than $2 billion to improve school safety, including the funding for training, and metal detectors, and security and mental health.” — President Donald Trump, in remarks to the National Rifle Association, Dallas, Texas, May 4
“Nearly $2 billion”
We first spotted Vice President Pence’s claim of “nearly $2 billion” in funding for school safety but then realized that President Trump had offered a more grandiose statement of “more than $2 billion” during his speech to the NRA.
With yet another deadly school shooting, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, it seems appropriate to figure whether these numbers are real. Pence touted it as the “single largest investment to school safety in American history” and attributed it “to the president’s leadership.”
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The funding is contained in the omnibus spending package signed into law in March — a bill that the president said he was “unhappy” with. He threatened a veto and then signed it anyway, but promised he would “never sign another bill like this again.”
The vice president’s office directed us to the White House Office and Management and Budget for a detailed explanation of “nearly $2 billion” in funding. An OMB senior adviser provided a list of programs that added up to $1.7 billion, which means that according to the White House’s own accounting the president was exaggerating when he said “more than $2 billion.”
But upon inspection, the vice president is exaggerating too. The biggest part of the figure – $1.1 billion – is for a school grants program that is only tenuously connected to school safety.
The program, Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE), is a block grant, also known as Title IV-A, signed into law by President Barack Obama, with an authorized level of $1.6 billion a year. At least 20 percent of the funds are supposed to be used for “safe and health students,” which ranges from school-based mental health programs and suicide prevention to better health and safety practices in athletic programs.
This is what is supposed to represent “school safety” and “security at schools.” At best the administration could claim $220 million of the $1.1 billion appropriation for school security, but frankly that’s a stretch.
Under the law, the grants are also supposed to be used for “well-rounded educational opportunities” – such as bolstering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education – and “effective use of technology” in increasing academic achievement. No more than 15 percent of the money can be spent on buying “technology infrastructure.”
Indeed, language in the House Appropriations Committee report and the omnibus explanatory statement published in the Congressional Record shows that Congress expected that much of this money would be spent on STEM education, especially computer science training for “underrepresented students such as minorities, girls, and youth from families living at or below the poverty line.”
That doesn’t sound like school security at all.
The OMB official defended attributing all the money to school security because the Education Department estimates “a significant majority of the districts will receive under $30,000, meaning they will have no restrictions on how they can allocate funds.” He added: “The program was designed to be very flexible with the intention of meeting local needs. Since we do not know if districts intend to seek waivers, we have stated that ‘up to $1.1 billion is available for school safety needs.'”
Kirsten Stewart, director of public policy at advocacy group Futures without Violence, a member of the Title IV-A Coalition, says other estimates indicate a “a good percentage” of school districts will exceed the $30,000 threshold, requiring guidelines to be followed. She said it is not clear how the money has been spent in the past because schools are only due to receive 2017 funding by September. The money in the $1.1 billion appropriation will not reach schools until September 2019.
There’s another fishy aspect to Pence and Trump bragging about the SSAE grants. The Trump administration has repeatedly insisted the program should be eliminated, even just weeks before the passage of the omnibus legislation in its 2019 budget proposal. In 2018, SSAE received funding of almost $400 million, but Trump proposed to zero it out, arguing “it duplicates activities that may be supported by other Federal programs as well as state, local, and private funding.”
Congress simply ignored the administration’s objections and even boosted the annual funding by $700 million.
A tip-off that the administration was not happy about this development is that in its official Statement of Administration Policy on the omnibus bill, issued March 22, the OMB made no mention of the SSAE grants when it applauded money in the bill to improve school safety. Instead, it mentioned the inclusion of the STOP School Violence Act, which earned a $75 million appropriation in 2019, and a few other programs in the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services and Justice.
(The $75 million for the STOP School Violence Act came from funds already appropriated for the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, a program developed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, that the Trump administration also sought to end funding for in 2019.)
Note that Pence claimed the funding was “thanks to the president’s leadership.” That’s akin to a student on a group project in high school who repeatedly badmouths the group’s agenda, even to the point of refusing to do any work – and then tries to claim credit after the project earned kudos from the teacher.
The other items on the OMB list are a grab-bag of items totaling about $500 million, such as $71 million for Project AWARE, to increase awareness of mental health issues among youth, $94 million for peer-to-peer mentoring of at-risk youths and $24 million to prevent gang violence.
There’s also $90 million for “school safety national activities,” but that’s mostly aimed at training teachers on how to improve student behavior. That’s also higher than the administration requested; for 2019, the administration wants to cut the funding to $42 million and turn the focus on the opioid crisis.
We would argue that some of these programs have little to do with school security, especially in the context of school shootings. But in any case, even under the most generous accounting, it doesn’t come close to $2 billion.
The OMB did not respond to repeated questions about how it determined this was the largest investment in school safety in U.S. history. Given how the other numbers were fudged, this is also rather dubious.
The Pinocchio Test
On either side of $2 billion, Pence and Trump have been rather misleading with the funding for school security in the omnibus bill. More than 60 percent of the money comes from a pot that is mostly devoted to a well-rounded education or technology, not school safety – and it’s an Obama-era program the administration wanted to zero out. The administration’s spin earns Four Pinocchios.
Video: President Trump and Vice President Pence have been touting their commitment to school safety, but the numbers don’t add up.(Meg Kelly / The Washington Post)