USA Today: Hunting and archery education can go on. Rural schools relieved after Biden signs bill

by Zachary Schermele

For Roy Getchell, it was a worrying summer.

Getchell, a school superintendent in Haines, Alaska, became alarmed a few months ago at the prospect of losing out on federal funding to support hunter safety and archery programs in his rural district. 

These programs are a “way of life,” he said.

Each of the couple hundred students he oversees is strongly encouraged to complete a hunting safety course in the seventh grade, he said. That’s because by high school, many are already living a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and fishing for everyday food for their own families.

He and other rural school district leaders were relieved Friday after President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation protecting federal funds for K-12 schools with hunting education, archery and sport-shooting programs.

“This would’ve been a very detrimental blow,” Getchell said.  

The bill became law after months of questions in rural America about Education Department guidance about how districts nationwide should interpret a provision in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a landmark piece of gun-safety legislation passed in the wake of the massacre at an elementary school in May 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.

Nineteen students and two teachers were killed in that shooting, rocking the nation and spurring one of the most significant and historic gun-control laws from Congress in decades. The legislation reformed the background-check system for gun purchasers and denied gun sales to convicted domestic abusers.  

The legislation also set aside $1 billion for schools nationwide to expand their mental health services and improve safety. Guidance issued by the Department of Education in April, however, said none of the funds could be used to give anyone a “dangerous weapon or training in the use of a dangerous weapon.” The guidance goes on to say the money may not be used to buy guns or train teachers to use them. 

In July, two Republican senators − John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina − raised concerns about how the Biden administration was interpreting the guidance. In a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona that was later publicized by Fox News, the senators suggested the department was requiring the schools to “defund” archery and hunter-education classes. 

No federal funds have actually been diverted from schools because of the language in the Bipartisan Safety Communities Act, the Education Department said.

Foxx: Federal guidance had a ‘chilling effect’ on rural schools

The specter of losing the programs was enough to spook some districts into pressing pause, at least momentarily, according to Tommy Floyd, president of the National Archery in the Schools Program. 

“We’re good for kids,” Floyd said. “I don’t want some little girl in Texas or a little boy in Kansas to do without it because of a political misunderstanding.” 

More than a million students in nearly 9,000 schools across the country participate in the archery program annually, according to its website, which also says it’s for students in fourth through 12th grades and is intended to teach skills including patience and self control.

The uproar got the attention of many Democrats, including some who soon face competitive elections. Both of Pennsylvania’s Democratic senators urged Congress to find a way to protect hunting and archery programs. So did Arizona’s Mark Kelly, another Democrat, and Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat-turned-independent who joined Texas Republicans to introduce the Senate’s version of the bill.

In guest columns published across Montana newspapers in September, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat staring down another tough reelection bid in a reliably red state, blamed the situation on “the Biden administration and folks in Washington who don’t understand our Montana values.” 

“Montanans sent me to the Senate to protect our rural way of life,” Tester said in a statement Friday celebrating the president’s signature of the legislation. 

It was a tone remarkably similar to that of Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The situation had a chilling effect on schools, said Foxx, who grew up around hunting.

“The White House does not think outside the beltway,” she said in a recent interview. 

The House overwhelmingly passed a bill in late September to clarify the federal funding guidance and protect hunting and archery programs. Only one person, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, voted against that bill. The next day, the Senate unanimously passed its own version of the bill. 

A White House spokesperson referred USA TODAY to a Sept. 26 post on X, formerly Twitter, from Stefanie Feldman, the director of Biden’s new Office of Gun Violence Prevention. In it, Feldman called hunter safety and archery valuable school enrichment programs.

The president, she said, was glad to see a legislative solution protecting them.