Post submitted by Jordan Dashow, former Federal Policy Manager
Earlier today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies and refused to stand up for LGBTQ students. The hearing focused on the Trump Administration’s FY 2018 budget, which would cut critical programs impacting LGBTQ people and also cut funding for the Department of Education by 13.5 percent while increasing funding for school choice. Throughout the hearing, pro-equality representatives highlighted the potential negative impact this new voucher funding could have on LGBTQ students.
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights who received a perfect score on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard, asked a series of questions about whether DeVos would ensure that basic civil rights protections would be enforced to protect students who utilized her school voucher program. Clark used the example of the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, Indiana, which receives more than $650,000 in state taxpayer-funded vouchers, while explicitly saying that they discriminate against LGBTQ families. Their handbook states that the Academy “reserves the right” to deny admission or discontinue enrollment of a student if their “home life violates” various “behaviors prohibited in the Bible,” including “homosexual or bisexual activity” and “practicing alternate gender identity.”
Clark asked DeVos whether the Department of Education would allow schools that blatantly discriminate students to be eligible for federal taxpayer-funded vouchers. Without fail, DeVos refused to answer the questions or commit to protecting LGBTQ students. Even when Rep. Clark asked if there are any circumstances where the Department of Education would decide that a school is not qualified to receive federal school choice funds, giving the example of a school that refuses to admit African American students, DeVos again refused to directly answer the question, referring to state’s flexibility to make their own rules and stating that it is up to parents to make the best choices for their children. Clark responded that she was “shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students."
This sentiment was similarly shared by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) who emphasized that it was the federal government that allowed her—as a black woman—to go to school and “how appalling and sad” it is that DeVos wants to remove the federal government’s critical role in ensuring every child is entitled to an education free from discrimination. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) also mentioned in his remarks how some private schools in his state that receive voucher funds turn away kids with disabilities and LGBTQ students, highlighting the problem of federal funds going to schools that practice discrimination in their admissions.
While DeVos’ refusal to support the Department of Education’s role in protecting students from discrimination was shameful, her answers were not surprising. Earlier this year, under her direction, as well as 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. While she claimed at the time she was committed to preventing discrimination, DeVos’ answers in today’s hearing make it clear that she is not willing to stand up for the rights of LGBTQ students.