Whether private schools that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students should get vouchers is a decision best left to states, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Wednesday.
But it’s not clear whether DeVos was referring to proposed federal voucher programs or existing state vouchers.
Her statement came in response to a question from Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass, during a House subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Department of Education’s budget proposal, which would cut or eliminate many programs and direct $1.4 billion to expand school choice, including a program to research and expand vouchers.
Clark referred to Lighthouse Christian Academy, a private school in Indiana that receives state vouchers. “They are also clear in their handbook and their guidance that if you are from a family where there is homosexual or bisexual activity, their word not mine, or practicing alternate gender identity, you may be denied admissions,” Clark said. “If this school, which obviously is approved to discriminate against LGBT students in Indiana, if Indiana applies for this federal funding, will you stand up that this school be open to all students?”
In her answer, DeVos sought to pivot to her thoughts on school choice more generally, but Clark interrupted her.
“Is there a line for you on states when it comes to equality? You are the backstop for students and their right to access equal education,” Clark said.
“For states that have programs that allow parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” DeVos said.
“So that’s a no. Do you see any circumstance where the federal department of education under your leadership would say that a school was not qualified?” Clark asked. She also asked DeVos about a school that hypothetically would not admit African-American students—if that was okay with the state, could it receive federal voucher money?
After some additional back and forth, DeVos dodged, sharing her broader philosophy of school choice.
“The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their students’ schooling and education,” she said. “And too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach... and states and local communities are best equipped to make these decision and frameworks on behalf of their students.”
There is some ambiguity in DeVos’s response that some media outlets did not acknowledge.
It’s clear that Clark was asking if federal anti-discrimination laws would apply to schools that receive federal voucher funding. This has been a concern for critics of the Trump administration, who argue that it has de-emphasized civil rights.
What’s not clear is whether DeVos was describing the rules for a new federal program or for existing state voucher programs. Existing state programs are not beholden to federal anti-discrimination laws. And, as my colleague Christina Samuels has written,students with disabilities waive some their IDEA rights when they accept state vouchers to attend private schools.
But advocates for LBGT students are concerned about the Trump administration’s approach to their rights and into civil rights in general after it rescinded guidance on the rights of transgender students and signaled a less aggressive approach to enforcement.
You can watch the whole exchange here:
Further reading about civil rights, LGBT students, and vouchers:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.