In his quest to get schools and colleges to reopen this fall, President Donald Trump is again targeting their finances and threatening their tax exemption status this time.
Trump said on Twitter on Friday that he was commanding the finance department to check the tax exemption status of schools that he said offer “radical indoctrination” instead of education.
“Too many universities and school systems deal with radical left-wing indoctrination, not education,” he tweeted. “So I ask the finance department to review their tax exemption status and / or funding, which will be taken away if this propaganda or public order law continues. Our children have to be raised and not indoctrinated! “
The Republican president did not explain what prompted the remark or which schools were being reviewed. But the threat is just another one Trump has spoken against schools as he increases the pressure to get them to open this fall. Twice this week, Trump threatened to cut federal funding for schools that won̵
However, it is unclear why Trump could end a school’s exemption status. It was also not clear what Trump meant by “radical indoctrination” or who would decide what kind of activity it involved. The White House and the finance department did not immediately comment on the President’s message.
Earlier Internal Revenue Service guidelines list six types of activities that may compromise a nonprofit’s tax exempt status, including political activities, lobbying, and deviations from the organization’s stated purpose.
But ideology is not on the IRS list, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents. Any review of the status of a school should follow the previously established guidelines, he said.
“It is always very worrying when the president picks out schools, colleges or universities in a tweet,” said Hartle. “Still, I don’t think anything will come of it quickly.”
In his recent threat, Trump revived his oft-repeated claim that universities are bastions of liberalism that stifle conservative ideas. He used the same argument last year when he issued an executive order urging universities to ensure freedom of speech on campus or to lose federal research funding.
His interest in college finances appears to have renewed as several schools sue the Trump administration for new restrictions on international students. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued earlier this week to block the policy, followed by Johns Hopkins University on Friday. The University of California system has announced that it will also file suit.
Universities are challenging new immigration and customs agency guidelines that international students cannot stay in the US if they take all of their courses online this fall. Politics was seen as an attempt to force the country’s universities to resume teaching in the fall.
According to the rules, international students have to change schools or leave the country if their universities want to teach entirely online. Even if their schools offer a mix of online and personal classes, foreign students are prohibited from taking all courses remotely.
The Harvard and MIT lawsuit argues that the directive violates ICE’s promise in March to suspend online education restrictions “for the duration of the emergency.”
By Friday, Trump had focused his efforts mainly on reopening primary and secondary schools as millions of parents are waiting to find out if their children will be at school this fall. He insisted that they can be opened safely, and argued in a Friday tweet that virtual learning was “terrible” compared to face-to-face classes.
“Not nearly! The schools have to be open in the fall. If not open, why should the federal government give funding? It won’t !!!” he wrote. Trump issued a similar warning on Twitter on Wednesday that other nations had successfully opened schools and that reopening in the fall is “important for children and families. Can cut off funding when it’s not open! “
Trump has not said what means he would hold back or under what authority. However, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said the president wanted to leverage future funding for coronavirus aid. McEnany said Trump wanted the next aid package to “significantly increase the money for education,” but only for schools that are reopening.
“He is considering possibly rerouting this to make sure it’s up to the students,” McEnany said at a press conference on Wednesday. She added that funding would “be tied to the student and not to a district where schools are closed”.
But Trump’s control over school funding is limited. The vast majority of funds for public elementary and secondary schools come from state and local sources, and nonprofit universities rely more on tuition fees or state aid than federal funding.
His threats to hold back funding have been denounced by a growing number of educational and health groups, including a medical association that the White House has repeatedly quoted in its press as reopening schools.
In a joint statement with national education unions and a superintendent group, the American Academy of Pediatrics said Friday that decisions should be made by health professionals and local leaders. The groups argued that schools need more money to safely reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, and that cuts could ultimately harm students.
“Public health authorities must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” the groups wrote. “Withholding funding from schools that are not personally open full-time would be a misguided approach that puts already financially stricken schools in an impossible position that would endanger the health of students and teachers.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics supported a reopening in the fall and set guidelines in June that schools should strive to begin the school year with students who are “physically present at school.” Vice President Mike Pence, Minister of Education Betsy DeVos and McEnany have repeated the group, citing on Wednesday to defend Trump’s approach.
However, Friday’s statement recognized that it may be best for some schools to stay online. School leaders, health professionals, teachers and parents should be the focus of reopening decisions, the groups said: “Considering the prevalence of COVID-19 in their communities and the ability of school districts to personally customize security protocols to learn safely and doably. “
Some districts have already announced plans to partially reopen with a mix of face-to-face and online tuition. The New York City public school district, the largest in the country, said students will be in classrooms two or three times a week and will be learning remotely in the meantime. DeVos has spoken out against this approach and has stated that students and taxpayers fail.