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ESEA Interpretation Eliminates Funding for Archery, Hunting Education

ESEA Interpretation Eliminates Funding for Archery, Hunting Education

An elementary student learning archery safety for hunter education

How an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act defunded educational programs for students and has caused large debate across many communities.

Recently, there has been a considerable amount of attention by members of Congress, hunters, conservationists, and other stakeholders these past few weeks regarding how section 13401 of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) potentially impacts hunter education in schools across the country. Some media outlets and stakeholder groups have framed the potential impact of the BSCA on hunter education as the unintentional consequences of policymaking. At the same time, other organizations have said this can be credited to the “anti-hunting extremists” in the Biden administration. Some groups have expressed their opposition to section 13401 of the BSCA itself. In contrast, others seem only to express their disagreement with the Federal government’s interpretation of the law but not the statute itself. But although many members of Congress and stakeholders have expressed their disapproval directly to the Federal government, you might notice that these statements and letters discuss the issue at hand very broadly. 

Given the criticisms, it is worth discussing section 13401 of the BSCA and the ESEA in more detail so that we can more accurately frame and understand the extent of the impact of the BSCA on hunter education in K-12 public schools. So, let’s take a step back for a moment.

Section 13401 of the BSCA amended section 8526 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) to prohibit ESEA funds to provide any person with a dangerous weapon or training in the use of a dangerous weapon. A “dangerous weapon” under section 930(g)(2) of title 18 of the United States Code is a weapon, device, instrument, material, or substance, animate or inanimate, that is used for, or is readily capable of, causing death or serious bodily injury, except that such term does not include a pocket knife with a blade of less than 2 1/2 inches in length. For example, ESEA funds could not be used to purchase a firearm or to train school staff to use a firearm. But section 13401 was likely crafted to help address gun violence in K-12 schools. 

“I helped negotiate the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to improve public safety and deliver commonsense gun reforms,” said Senator Heinrich (D-NM). “That included strengthening criminal penalties for firearm trafficking and delivering important resources to help schools reduce gun violence. It never cut educational resources for sportsmen and archery programs, which teach important safety lessons and personal responsibility. If the Administration refuses to preserve legitimate funding for these programs, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation to do so directly.”

There is nothing explicit in the BSCA that prohibits using ESEA funds for hunter education courses in schools. The issue at hand, however, is that something like a bow fits the definition of a dangerous weapon under the United States Code. Therefore, section 13401 of the BSCA could implicitly remove a potential funding source for something like a school’s archery program. But Federal K-12 public education funds make up for only about 7 percent of all K-12 education funds in the country; the vast majority of dollars that fund our K-12 public schools are from state and local taxes. 

The ESEA is a civil rights law at its core, aiming to close the achievement gap, especially in schools that need the most support. The Federal funds provided under the ESEA are generally supplemental K-12 education dollars for educational services to the country’s lowest-performing schools with the highest rates of children from low-income families. There are several Federal education programs under the ESEA that states, districts, and schools receive funds for, each with its own program purpose. These ESEA programs include improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged, migrant education, professional development for teachers, language instruction for students with limited English proficiency, and a few more. 

By law, spent ESEA funds must be consistent with the applicable program’s purpose. One ESEA program provides funds to support the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for the lowest-performing schools with high rates of poverty. This program under Title IV of the ESEA is likely the only ESEA program where a small percentage of funds were previously being used for hunter education. Something like archery would not be funded under the other ESEA programs simply because those program purposes do not align with archery. 

This is important context as it means that, in practice, section 13401 of the BSCA only potentially impacts a very small fraction of all public education dollars previously being used for hunter education in public schools. But there is almost no data out there to suggest that a large number of existing hunter education programs in schools are now going to be cut due to the BSCA. Most hunter education programs in K-12 schools nationwide are primarily funded by non-Federal sources. Given that over 90 percent of education dollars are from State and local taxes and the vast majority of ESEA funds were already not being used for hunter education or archery, much of the criticisms against the Federal government are misguided. 

If you want to advocate for the continuation of hunter education courses in your schools, the most productive thing you can do now is to reach out to your state education agency, district, or school leadership to find out how your local school’s hunter education program is funded and how, as a community member, you can support the continuation of those programs. 

What is Hunter Education?

Hunter education is required coursework for every single prospective hunter in the United States. It’s a prerequisite for legally obtaining a hunting license and purchasing hunting tags from state wildlife agencies. If you want to go hunting, you must take and pass a hunter education class. State wildlife agencies provide in-person courses, too. 

I went through hunter education as an adult during my senior year of undergrad. It’s simple, clear curriculum was a deep dive into firearm safety. During my class, I learned about the different types of shotguns and rifles, different action types, how to identify the parts of a firearm, how to safely load, unload, and discharge a firearm, and the four rules of firearm safety. In addition to educating students on how to safely use firearms, the class touches on hunting ethics, too. It also emphasizes the need to be familiar with your state’s hunting regulations.

Hunter education classes aren’t just important for getting hunting tags. The mandatory class also teaches students how to handle firearms safely, minimizing the number of hunting accidents and incidents via firearm safety education. Firearm safety classes help people understand the mechanics of firearms, know how to check if a firearm is loaded or unloaded, has the safety turned on or has the safety turned off, and know when to use different calibers or sizes of firearms. These things help quell fears surrounding firearms and build confidence when using firearms, two things I have personally witnessed while teaching US Concealed Carry Association classes as a certified instructor.

The Importance of Archery and Hunter Education

The National Archery in the Schools (NASP) program is an in-school archery education program that operates in 49 states. Since its inception in 2002, NASP “has put a bow and arrow in the hand of over 18 million students, grades 4 – 12.”

NASP’s national achievements include:

  • 76,492 individual competitive archers from 1,053 schools from 42 states competed during the 2021-2022 season
  • Student participation is 50 percent female and 50 percent male, and both genders train together
  • 58% percent of students said they feel more connected to their school because of NASP
  • 40% of students are more engaged in the classroom after participating in NASP
  • 91% of students participate in other outdoor recreation activities, including hunting, as a result of NASP participation

NASP accepts federal grant funds to help bring its programming to public schools.

“Hunting and fishing are healthy, fun activities and extremely immersive ways to learn about the natural world around us and its conservation,” said Dr. Salif Mahamane, a professor at Western Colorado University (WCU) and a bowhunter. “To defund the safe education of shooting safety and techniques is a disservice to any student who finds joy in those activities and uses them as a positive outlet for their curiosity and pursuit of challenge and growth.”

Dr. Mahamane advocated for and now leads a day-long class for Master in Environmental Management students at WCU titled “Hunting and Conservation.” The first half of the class explains hunting’s historical and modern role in wildlife conservation, and the second half of the day is spent at the shooting range, where a certified firearms safety instructor teaches safe firearm handling practices for shotguns, rifles, and pistols. The class fills quickly and usually has a waitlist each year. Its students see it as a valuable opportunity to learn about hunting and firearm handling in a safe environment. If students are interested in becoming a hunter after the class, they’re encouraged to take hunter education.

Defunding Archery and Hunter Education Impacts 

The Department of Education should “reconsider the interpretation BSCA in a way that does not limit learning opportunities for students and does not present barriers to critical hunter safety courses,” said Senator Jon Tester (D, Montana).

Decreasing access to hunter education for America’s youth is unfavorable for several reasons. North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department believes that “exposing thousands of kids to a shooting sport such as target archery will add to the recruitment of the next generation of hunters.” Decreased programming may lower the number of youth who can experience our wild places and won’t become advocates for nature, wildlife, or conservation. It also reduces the chance that kids will have the opportunity to connect with nature, whether through plants, wildlife, or the entire ecology of a place. Additionally, target shooting is one of America’s fastest-growing youth sports.

In Colorado, legislators passed HB22-1168 last April. The Public School Hunter Education Seventh Grade Course allows permitted schools to offer hunter education classes to seventh-grade students as an elective class included in their curriculum. Nearly one-sixth of Coloradans are hunters and anglers. Unsurprisingly, Colorado educators believe teaching kids how to safely handle firearms and develop strong outdoor ethics is essential.

Let’s bring it back to upland birds for a moment. Upland birds are some of the most at-risk game species in the United States. If fewer kids have access to hunter education, youth upland bird hunting recruitment may decrease, and we’ll lose out on future bird conservation advocates. Anecdotally, I know folks who have been inspired to pursue careers in conservation because of their access to upland bird hunting as a kid. Could a potential outcome of decreased access to hunter education classes translate into fewer upland bird hunters and fewer career conservationists?

Additionally, target shooting is one of the biggest drivers of conservation funding via the Pittman-Robertson Act (PRA) because it places an “excise tax on all firearms and ammunition to support conservation efforts, development of firearm ranges and hunter education programs,” according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Millions of Americans participate in target shooting sports each year. Could the demand for firearms and ammunition shrink if fewer folks are exposed to target shooting sports early in life?

Note that the BSCA doesn’t impact funding for state-based hunter education programs; it’s solely focused on programs provided by schools. However, if today’s youth experiences decreased access to target shooting sports due to defunding, could we see a decrease in adult participation a decade from now? Given that the PRA is the only act of its kind, can we risk a future reduction in conservation’s main funding stream?

Potential Legislative Response to the ESEA Amendment

US Representatives Mark Green (TN-9) and Richard Hudson (NC-09) introduced the Protecting Hunting Heritage and Education Act in response to the Biden Administration. Their proposed act is simple; it seeks to “amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to clarify that the prohibition on the use of Federal education funds for certain weapons does not apply to the use of such weapons for training in archery, hunting, or other shooting sports.”

In a press release, Rep. Hudson stated, “I call on Joe Biden’s Department of Education to stop this war on archery and shooting classes immediately. We should fully recognize the benefits of these programs which teach public safety, self esteem, and teamwork to future generations.”

“Children in Tennessee schools should not be prevented from receiving safety and skills training in archery, hunting, and other shooting sports by the Biden administration,” said Rep. Green in the same press release. “The classes President Biden wants to defund aren’t only about hunting and archery, they are about teaching young Americans how to respect nature and to focus on a goal. The Biden administration’s decision to strip funding for these important classes doesn’t just miss the mark, it misses the entire target.”

View Comments (3)
  • Saying that “The Biden Administration” defunded these programs is disingenuous at best. This bill was sponsored by two Republicans, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. This sort of heading is meant to spur up division amongst people and create misinformation, and I think you should be more accurate in your titles rather than resorting to divisive clickbait.

    • Mark, thank you for pointing that out. Was not our intention to spur division as the content of the article paints a very clear picture of what happened. On your suggestion we took a second stab at the title.

  • It’s our money,,they use it for everything, but we can’t,,, why are they trying to control over everything 💯 we should get control of the money we are taxed for the outdoors, but our government wants to use it for other things 😡

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