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Threatening To Cut Funds Is Not How To Reopen Schools, Rep. Scott Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump is pushing for schools to reopen with in-person classes. If they do not, he is threatening to withhold federal funding. Here's the president on Fox News Sunday during an interview with Chris Wallace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Young people have to go to school, and there's problems when you don't go to school, too. And there's going to be a funding problem because we're not going to fund when they don't open their schools. We're not going to fund them. We're not going to give them money if they're not going to school - if they don't open.

GREENE: Now, in March, lawmakers approved $13.5 billion for K-12 education under the CARES Act package, but education groups say schools need at least $200 billion in federal funding to safely reopen this fall. So how are lawmakers planning to close this gap as Congress negotiates another round of coronavirus aid this week? Well, we have Congressman Bobby Scott on the line with us. He chairs the House Education and Labor Committee. He's a Democrat from the state of Virginia. Congressman, welcome.

BOBBY SCOTT: Thank you, David. It's good to be with you.

GREENE: Well, it's good to have you, as always. That was quite an interview from the president yesterday saying forcefully that he would withhold federal money if schools don't reopen. What is your response to that?

SCOTT: Well, first of all, there's no apparent legal authority to withhold the funds, and we need a plan to reopen the schools. Everybody knows that the students really need to be in school if it can be done safely. I mean, they can achieve better academic success if they're in school. Socializing skills can't be done at home. Nutrition - they get the nutrition from school meals. Regrettably, you can identify child abuse when children come to school with bruises and whatnot.

And I don't see how you can open the economy without opening the schools, so there are compelling reasons. He's right. There are compelling reasons to open the schools if - if - it can be done safely. If it can't be done safely, you just can't do it, and you need a plan to open. Open the schools or I'm going to cut your funding is not a plan.

GREENE: Well, let me - I do want to say, I mean, 8% of school funding, I mean, it's a small percentage, but it does come from the federal government, so, presumably, the president could do something with that money if he wanted to.

SCOTT: Well, the money has been - it has been appropriated for a specific purpose. The president can't decide that he's going to spend or not spend money based on a whim. The money has been appropriated, there are formulas, and the school systems are entitled to their funding.

GREENE: Well, let me just ask you about your plan if...

SCOTT: (Inaudible).

GREENE: If - I mean, it sounds like, in theory, you and the president agree that you would like to get schools - kids into those schools if at all possible. As you say, you want to make sure it's done safely. What are you prioritizing? Because it sounds like if schools do reopen physically, I mean, they need to put a lot of new safety measures in place. I mean, they're talking about billions of dollars that they would need to do that. What is your priority going forward?

SCOTT: Well, the Heroes Act and the Moving Forward Act have funding that can go to schools. One of the first things is ventilation. We know that the restaurants say there's a preference for outdoors rather than indoors. The experts tell us that when you're indoors, breathe - just breathing, the virus gets in the air and stays in the air. If you don't have proper ventilation, you're going to have a problem.

The GAO did a recent study that found half the school districts need to replace half of the - about half of the school districts need to replace half their ventilation systems - the HVAC, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Need to - the serious repairs or replacement of half of them. That's - so you're going to need that to comply with the CDC guidelines on ventilation. You need PPEs, the personal protective equipment. Who's going to pay for that? I mean, the teachers are already into their pockets on school supplies. You need space, furniture, cleaning and sanitizing. What are you going to do...

GREENE: You have your work cut out for you here, it sounds like.

SCOTT: What are you going to do for buses? I mean, you're going to have the same number of students packed into the bus. I mean, these cost money. One of the first thing we need to do is make sure we're funding state and local governments as they have cut back because of revenue shortfalls. They're going to have to - they're going to have to cut education.

Virginia went through this. They had the General Assembly session right before the pandemic, and they had to amend the budget. They had to cut a lot of things - teacher raises, counselors in the schools.

GREENE: Well, Congressman, if...

SCOTT: You have a lot of problems that need to be funded. And if you don't - if you don't cover state and local shortfalls, all the appropriations for education will do will be partially offset some of the cuts.

GREENE: Congressman, my apology, I just want to ask you in the little time we have left, I mean, some Republicans, also the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, saying if schools can't physically reopen, maybe some of this funding should go directly to parents who are going to be juggling so, so much with their kids at home. Is that an option you're open to?

SCOTT: Well, they've been trying to do vouchers for a long time, and to use this pandemic as an excuse to take money from the...

GREENE: What about something short of vouchers? I mean, is there another way to do that?

SCOTT: Well, you give it to the parents, what are the parents going to do with it? They're trying to reopen the schools safely, and that's what we need. It's going to cost money, and you need a plan. You can't come up with money right before the schools open to hire nurses in the schools, to fix the ventilation systems. You need planning, and that's not going on.

GREENE: Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia. Congressman, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

SCOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.