The eight years of the Obama administration have been a time of great change for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as a whole, and that transformation extended beyond high-profile fights for marriage rights into the realm of student issues.
LGBT student advocates have noted that federal agencies under Obama have been particularly active in interpreting and applying civil rights laws to gender identity and sexual orientation issues, collecting data on the experiences of LGBT students in schools, and pushing for inclusive school climates for all students.
So what will these issues look like during the presidency of Donald Trump? Some civil rights organizations fear that the efforts they’ve fought for will languish in the currently forming administration, which has set a tone for less federal involvement in education issues, including civil rights. Here are some issues to watch.
How Would LGBT Students Fare Under a Federal School-Voucher Program?
Trump seemingly doubled down on his commitment to school vouchers last week when he named Republican mega-donor and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as his choice for education secretary. DeVos’ husband, the son of the founder of Amway, helped finance a campaign to change the Michigan Constitution to allow tuition vouchers at private schools, Politics K-12 reports. Her appointment follows a plan Trump unveiled during the campaign to redirect $20 billion in federal funding to a voucher program that would send low-income students to public and private schools of their choice.
Those plans alarmed civil rights groups, which argued that the federal government may have less authority to enforce civil rights laws and oversee their application in private schools, putting some students at risk for discrimination. LGBT student group GLSEN, released this statement from Executive Director Eliza Byard after DeVos’ appointment:
We are deeply concerned by the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education. GLSEN is committed to the principle that all students have a right to high-quality public education free from discrimination. DeVos's record of advocacy for vouchers and tuition tax credits represents a rejection of that principle. We have seen time and time again that so-called "school choice" undercuts civil-rights enforcement and drains public education systems of desperately needed funds. True educational equity requires schools that serve the most at-risk students, including students of color; students with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) students; and English-language learners. Vouchers and tuition tax credits do not advance this cause. As we have seen over the past eight years, federal civil rights oversight of education is essential to ensure that all students in this country have real access to opportunity. There is so much to be celebrated in the civil rights gains made during the Obama Administration. As a nation, we must build on that legacy. Over the years, people of good will across the political spectrum have been able to come together to promote the success of all students, and we call upon DeVos to join us in moving forward."
How Will the Trump Administration Interpret Title IX?
Transgender student rights have been a flashpoint under the Obama administration. But Trump could undo guidance to schools from the U.S. departments of Justice and Education by appointing officials with a different view of Title IX, which would affect issues like which restrooms transgender students are allowed to use at school. The Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX is currently at issue in a Supreme Court case. And, if trends continue, Trump will likely appoint a justice to fill conservative justice Antonin Scalia’s seat. From a story by Education Week’s Mark Walsh about education civil rights under Trump:
Under Obama, the [Education Department's office for civil rights] has taken the view that under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination "based on sex" in federally funded educational programs, schools and colleges must allow transgender students to use the restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. A broad guidance document on the issue from the Education and Justice departments is being challenged in a lawsuit by 21 states, which contend that the interpretation is incorrect and that such guidance may not be imposed on the states without going through a notice-and-comment rulemaking procedure, which the May 16 "Dear Colleague" letter did not. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted a case that arose before the "Dear Colleague" letter was issued that involves a Virginia transgender student who was denied the use of the boys' restroom in his high school. A federal appeals court ruled for the student by giving deference to an informal interpretation of Title IX provided by an OCR official. Some observers have suggested that the Trump administration could quickly reverse course by withdrawing such guidance. Last spring, candidate Trump gave mixed signals on the issue. He said on one occasion that he thought transgender people should be able to "use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate." He later said it should be a matter for states to decide."
How Would Less Aggressive Civil Rights Enforcement Affect LGBT Students?
Even if a Trump administration doesn’t introduce new interpretations of civil rights laws, it may be less aggressive about enforcing them. As I wrote in May, civil rights complaints and investigations have spiked under Obama’s education department.
Trump’s advisers have talked about scaling back or even eliminating many of the functions of the office for civil rights, the wing of the federal agency responsible for this enforcement. And civil rights groups fear a similar scaling back at the Justice Department, which also enforces these laws in schools.
A less aggressive approach could mean fewer investigations of violations of rules affecting LGBT students. The Obama administration, for example, asserted that schools may violate civil rights laws if they don’t adequately respond to reports of bullying, including bullying on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
School Climate Research and LGBT Students
The effects of a new administration on sometimes marginalized student groups could come not only from its approach to marquee issues, like interpretation of laws. Among the more wonky issues that could make a big difference for LGBT students: How much the new administration prioritizes collecting and tracking data on the experience of all students in public schools.
As I wrote in 2014, many federal data sources include few questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, leaving a dearth of reliable, longitudinal information about LGBT students’ experiences, and making it difficult to track the effectiveness of school climate efforts for these students. Several agencies have worked to expand the data they collect on LGBT students in recent years, but researchers have said there is even more work to be done in this area. These issues could be affected by the priorities of folks much lower in the department than the education secretary, and they will be a good thing to keep an eye on as the Trump administration kicks into gear.
Tone at the Top
After Trump announced DeVos’ appointment, advocacy organizations were quick to point out her family’s ties to socially conservative causes. GLSEN, for example, noted a family history of “funding right-wing Christian advocacy groups, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom.” The Alliance Defending Freedom has been involved in several lawsuits targeting the federal transgender student guidance.
This may mean DeVos takes a conservative viewpoint on these issues with her to the department. Or it may signal that the department will at least take less vocal positions on issues affecting LGBT students. As LGBT student groups have said, the work of the Obama administration has extended beyond its policy positions to its use of the federal megaphone to bring awareness to their causes.
Related reading on Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and LGBT students:
- Choice Advocate Named Ed. Sec.: What Does That Mean?
- Civil Rights Groups Wary of Federal Role Under Trump
- After Election, Students Express a Mix of Emotions
- After the Election, DACA Teachers Wonder About Their Future in the Classroom
- Superintendent’s Retweet About Students’ Post-Election Emotions Stirs Controversy
- Some Free Advice for Melania Trump on Fighting Cyberbullying
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.