With COVID-19 cases spiking again in the United States, and many schools from pre-K through 12 to colleges and universities still unclear about whether or how to open in the fall, President Donald Trump is threatening to cut federal funding to districts that don't.
In a tweet, he wrote, "May cut off funding if not open!" In the same tweet, he cited the fact that schools reopened in several European countries without a problem and asserted concerns over doing the same in the U.S. were based on political goals.
"The schools will be open in the fall, and we hope that most schools are going to be open," Trump said during a White House education briefing Tuesday, July 7, 2020. "We don't want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons. They think it's going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way. So, we're very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools." Trump did not, however, explicitly say who would actually cut the funding.
Most public schools receive the majority of — about 90 percent — of their funding from state and local property and sales taxes; that's money the federal government has no access to. The federal government does, however, finance about 8.5 percent of K-12 funding, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan leg of Congress. But the president would have little to no control over any money already earmarked by Congress.
Not even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has the authority to withhold the money. Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, noted in a tweet that DeVos and the Department of Education would need congressional authority to withhold funding from schools for not reopening. However, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) did introduce legislation June 11, 2020, that would give her that authority, though the bill has gone nowhere.
So the million-dollar question here is can the president of the United States deny funds to schools that do not reopen?
"Once again, Trump has acted without regard to basic limits on presidential power," explains Caroline Mala Corbin, professor of law at University of Miami School of Law, in an email. "The power of the purse lies with Congress, not with the president. If Congress has already appropriated money to public schools, then the president cannot withhold those funds."