Betsy DeVos testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. She was there to talk about the proposed budget from President Trump which plans to cut billions of dollars in public education funding while increasing funds to support programs for school choice.
While there, DeVos faced questions about whether private schools that receive federal money would be punished for discrimination against religion or for discriminating against LGBTQ+ students.
According to the U.S. Education Secretary, schools that receive federal funding are required to follow federal antidiscrimination laws, but the Department of Education would not pursue the matter beyond that. When she was pressed by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), DeVos refused to say anything further.
“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle.”
Merkley put his misgivings on record by saying, “…you just said where it’s unsettled, such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that’s incorrect, please correct it for the record.”
DeVos declined to do so, and when asked about religious discrimination, once again replied that schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law.
Merkley wasn’t the only one to question DeVos on these issues. Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) both asked about religious and LGBTQ+ discrimination.
DeVos stuck to her previous statements, however, and said, “Any school that accepts federal funds, will follow federal laws, period, without discrimination.”
The Secretary of Education did have allies on the Subcommittee, and the Chairman, Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) praised DeVos for what she was saying. He agreed with her that it is not her job to interpret the federal law.
“…if it’s murky…. That’s the job of either the courts or the Congress, not the Department of Education. I think that’s what I hear you repeatedly saying and I agree with that.”
Two Primary Problems
One of the primary problems lies in that no state protects LGBTQ+ students in their voucher laws. In fact, most states only provide explicit protections based on race or ethnicity. That leaves a lot of marginalized students left in the lurch.
Consider North Carolina, where multiple schools who explicitly prohibit lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students, yet still receive state funds through a voucher program. That’s because, like many other states, North Carolina does not address sexual orientation or gender identity in its educational discrimination laws.
Bible Baptist Christian, a private school in Matthews, North Carolina, publishes in its handbook, “The school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a current student. This includes, but is not limited to, living in, condoning or supporting any form of sexual immorality (or) practicing or promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”
Why does it matter if state law doesn’t provide for specific protections? That is the second problem: there is still a question whether private schools would be considered as receiving federal funds. The funds from the Department of Education would be disbursed to states as block grants. The states would then pass the money on to students as vouchers. So do the vouchers count as federal funds or would the states consider them to be state funds?
It is likely that they would still be considered federal funds, such as money disbursed to states under the Title X Family Planning Program. But as DeVos said, if there were any questions, the Department of Education would not stop disbursements until the courts or Congress made their decisions, a process that could take months or even years; time spent where children would be discriminated against freely without fear of consequence.
[Featured Image by Win McNamee/Getty Images]