Earlier today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. For the second time in two weeks, DeVos refused to commit to protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination in a federal voucher program.
At first, it seemed like DeVos had changed her tune on protecting students from discrimination from her last hearing. During an exchange with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) about protecting students from discrimination, DeVos shared that “schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law, period.” When Murray followed up by asking if this applied even under a voucher program, DeVos reiterated “period.”
However, when Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) followed up on Murray’s questioning, asking specifically if, under a voucher program, a private school that sets its own admissions policy would not be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ students, DeVos did not answer the question directly. She stated again that “schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.” When pressed, she then followed up by saying that “on areas where the law is unsettled this Department is not going to be issuing decrees and that is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle.” When asked by Sen. Merkley if she considers protections for LGBTQ people to be an area of unsettled law, she refused to answer the question.
This is disconcerting, considering that under her direction and the direction of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Departments of Education and Justice revoked the Obama Administration’s 2016 guidance detailing schools’ obligations to transgender students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Just last week a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a transgender high school student in Kenosha, Wisconsin, finding that he has the right under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to use the restroom that corresponds to his gender identity. Yet, under DeVos’ leadership, the Department of Education removed one of the key tools to help schools’ meet their obligations under Title IX to transgender students
When Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) also followed up on this line of questioning, DeVos again refused to directly answer the question, saying again that schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law. When he asked whether a voucher would be considered federal funds, DeVos demurred and refused to directly answer the question several times, again repeating her line about federal funds and federal law. As Senator Reed concluded, her answers “are rather cryptic.”
Disturbingly, DeVos not only refused to explicitly commit to protecting LGBTQ students but also suggested she would impede efforts to ensure that the public knows what institutions of higher education are practicing discrimination. In April 2016, the Department of Education published a list of religious educational institutions who have received an exemption from federal civil rights law in order to discriminate against LGBTQ students. During the hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) described the publication of this list as an effort to shame these schools and asked DeVos if this list would continue to be published. DeVos answered that “it doesn’t sound like it’s a necessary thing” and that it is something that she “will certainly look into.”
The Department of Education is supposed to enforce our civil rights education laws. However, with each additional hearing that DeVos testifies before Congress, it’s becoming clearer that under her leadership the Department of Education will no longer stand up for the rights of LGBTQ students.