If President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attempt to withhold federal funds for Pennsylvania schools that do not fully reopen in September, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro will take legal action to stop them, he told school superintendents Tuesday.

“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of this president trying to use teachers and our children as pawns, and I’m going to look out for them, unlike the president, who only seems to be looking out for himself and his political fortunes,” Shapiro said in an interview.

His comments followed a letter he sent to school administrators across the state. Educators now crafting reopening plans have reached out to Shapiro with concerns about how they weigh fears of the coronavirus spreading in schools against Trump and DeVos’ recent funding threats, Shapiro said. While local and state tax revenues account for the bulk of school budgets, federal money — particularly funds for needy students — also account for significant line items.

In Philadelphia, with its high concentration of students living in poverty, about 10% of the district’s $3.4 billion budget comes from the federal government.

But because federal funds for schools are appropriated by Congress and not the president or the Education Department, Trump and DeVos have no legal standing to make threats, said Shapiro, who blasted the president for “trying to use teachers and our children as pawns.”

“I thought it was important to provide some legal guidance to the school districts all across Pennsylvania so that they can make the best decisions possible based on health data and science for the students under their care,” Shapiro said.

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School leaders, Shapiro said in his letter, “must balance children’s educational and emotional needs, parents’ ability to return to work, the health and safety of your teachers and staff, and overall public health. ... While we have learned much about COVID-19, there is still much we do not know about how physical reopening will affect students and their families along with faculty and staff — despite Secretary DeVos’ statements to the contrary.”

Shapiro did not specify what kind of legal action he might take if the Trump administration moves to withhold funding.

School districts across the region are in the process of introducing back-to-school plans. Most local superintendents who have done so are planning for a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction.

Trump has made a full reopening of schools in the fall a central part of his attempt to move the country beyond the public health crisis and prioritize the economy as he seeks reelection, even as infections are surging across wide swaths of the country. DeVos has echoed Trump’s insistence — and his threat to withhold funding, saying on CNN earlier this month that if schools don’t reopen, “they shouldn’t get the funds.”

“I think the go-to needs to be kids in school, in person, in the classroom,” she said. “Because we know for most kids, that’s the best environment for them.”

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