BY CHRIS LAWRENCE
CHARLESTON — A guidance document from the United States Department of Education could threaten two popular youth outdoor programs in West Virginia schools.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona moved to block funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to schools that offer hunter education and archery programs.
Cardona’s guidance is in regard to the bi-partisan Safer Communities Act, which passed last year. The act was approved with the help of 15 Republican senators’ votes, including that of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Sen. Joe Manchin was also a vote in favor of the bill, but both said the Cardona’s position did not reflect the nature of the legislation.
“The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill that addressed gun violence and mental health in our schools,” said Manchin. “Any defunding of schools who offer critical programs like archery and hunting clubs would be a gross misinterpretation of the legislation and yet another example of this administration trying to advance their radical agenda with blatant disregard for the law.”
Capito had a similar response along with fellow Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who also voted in favor of BSCA.
“I share the concern of both Sens. Cornyn and Tillis, who are also the two authors of the legislation, about the misinterpretation of the Biden administration in not funding these programs,” Capito told MetroNews. “The Biden administration doesn’t understand that going further than intended does not support the level of bipartisan support to make our communities safer. This is yet another example of the Biden administration trying to implement their agenda in the face of Congressional intent.”
The Safer Communities Act essentially was aimed at disallowing weapons training in schools for educators or the use of educational funds to purchase weapons. The topic at the time was a hot button issue in the wake of several recent school shootings. However, Cardona’s interpretation takes a hard line and would prohibit training involving any “dangerous weapon.”
The position could have a negative impact on West Virginia. The popular and growing National Archery in Schools program is one of the largest youth outreaches done by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Although not funded by schools, the NASP curriculum is adopted in school physical education programs and teachers are trained by the program to be instructors. Schools can choose to make the archery training part of the P.E. curriculum or an after-school club.
NASP was first unveiled in West Virginia in 2004. It now has 350 schools participating. The schools include elementary, middle and high schools — public, private and religious schools. Not all of the school programs participate in tournament competitions, but according to the DNR, they are active in teaching the NASP lessons in their schools.
NASP reported as of Aug. 1, a total of 25,202 West Virginia students received instruction through the NASP program in their schools.
For many years hunter education was taught by Natural Resources Police and volunteer hunter education instructors in the state’s school system as part of health and P.E. classes. The practice had waned for many years, but recently enjoyed a resurgence when the Legislature in 2022 passed House Bill 4065, which authorized schools to allow hunter education again as part of the school day in the building.
According to the Natural Resources Police, in 2020 approximately 130 schools offered the hunter ed classes and 2,014 students received certification in a school-related course. There were no school-based classes in 2021 due to COVID. During 2022, the agency reported 133 schools had hunter education classes and 2,120 students completed the course. During the most recent school year, 2023, 139 schools had classes and 2,317 students completed a hunter education course. According to the DNR the agency continues to get requests to start hunter ed programs in schools across the state.
The West Virginia Department of Education does not believe the USDOE’s directive will impact those programs because none of the ESEA funds in West Virginia are spent on either program.
“In West Virginia, these funds have not been used to support these programs. The WVDE’s understanding is that the Bipartisan Safe Communities Act prohibits the use of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funds to provide anyone with a dangerous weapon or to train anyone in the use of such weapons. It does not prohibit these activities; it just prohibits the use of specific ESEA funding for these activities.” said Department Spokesperson Christy Day in an email. “In West Virginia, ESEA Title IV funds are not used for archery and hunter education. Other federal funding streams to schools that have these programs are not affected. So, this is not an issue in the state.”
While that is the understanding and position of the West Virginia Department of Education, it’s still not clear to most if that’s the case. Nobody is able to say for certain if the Federal Department of Education’s position simply prohibits use of ESEA funds from being spent on archery and hunter ed classes or whether any school receiving ESEA funds is prohibited from hosting the classes.
Officials with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and Gov. Jim Justice’s office indicated they were aware of the situation and were working with the state Department of Education to protect the programs. West Virginia’s Congressional Delegation is also aware and indicated communication with the federal DOE to guard against any interference with popular archery and hunter education programs in schools nationwide.
There has been a large response as well from national conservation organizations that are rallying to reverse Cardona’s directive.