Arntzen seeks clarity on how federal rule may affect hunting education at schools

Montana Office of Public Instruction
Posted at 7:26 PM, Aug 02, 2023

HELENA — According to national media reports, advocates are raising questions about whether a new interpretation of a federal law could lead to a loss of funding for school-based hunting education or archery programs. This week, Montana’s state superintendent of public instruction asked the federal government to clarify the issue.

Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance related to “dangerous weapons” leaves many unanswered questions, especially in a rural state like Montana.

“There’s a lot of what-ifs,” she told MTN Wednesday.

The questions come out of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed last year in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The law included changes to gun safety regulations, as well as investments in mental health and school safety programs.

One section of the law prevents certain federal education dollars from being used to “provide someone with a dangerous weapon” or train them in using such a weapon. National reports, including one from Fox News, highlighted concerns from hunting education advocates, who said the department’s interpretation of that section prevented funds from going to hunting and archery programs.

On Tuesday, Arntzen, a Republican, released a statement, saying she believed that interpretation of the law would be an “error or confusion.” She called on the department to “recognize Montana's values, our rural culture, and our indigenous history.”

“My purpose is to make sure that our public schools have the autonomy and the authority granted by our state statutes – also adhering to the federal law,” said Arntzen.

In her statement, Arntzen asked for clarification on whether the federal law impacts hunter safety courses taught on school campuses; archery education, including in connection with discussions of indigenous culture; school resource officers; training teachers to respond to active shootings; and Montana’s school marshal program, in which school districts can hire active or retired law enforcement officers to provide security on campus.

Montana received $4.8 million in additional school funding through the Safer Communities Act’s Stronger Connections Grant program. The Office of Public Instruction passed $4.5 million of that directly to 25 school districts through a competitive subgrant process. Arntzen said she particularly wants additional guidance from the Department of Education so she can give districts a clear idea of how they can use that money.

“We're very rural communities across our state,” she said. “We want to make sure that one size does not fit all.”

The Stronger Connections Grant is intended to create safer learning environments in high-need schools. The money can be used for physical safety – like emergency response plans – as well as for addressing student wellness and creating a more positive school culture.

In a frequently-asked-questions document on the Stronger Connections program, the Department of Education said grant funds can be used to support school resource officers and other school-based police, but that they cannot go toward arming teachers or training teachers to use a weapon.

Arntzen said, once OPI gets additional guidance on how the Stronger Connections money must be used, they will go over each district’s plan to make sure it follows the requirements.

“I am so willing to work with those districts that have been awarded and the federal government, to make sure that we can look at those plans, reauthorize those plans – not to pull the money back from our school districts, but to have a really honest conversation of what this federal action means,” she said.

This issue has received attention from a number of elected leaders across the country. On Wednesday, Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, urging the department to reverse course on what he referred to as a “misinterpretation of the law.”

“Republicans and Democrats worked together last summer to pass BSCA, which aims to improve the safety and wellbeing of American students while protecting law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights,” Tester said in his letter. “However, it appears that the Department of Education has interpreted this law in a manner that may reduce schools’ ability to offer important and long-established gun training classes.”

MTN contacted the Department of Education for this story. A spokesperson for the department sent a statement in response.

“The Department continues to implement the law as developed by Congress and continues to be open to engagement from Members regarding changes to this statutory language,” the statement said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a response from the U.S. Department of Education.