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Education Department’s Transgender Guidance: Congress, K-12 Leaders React

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 16, 2016 8 min read
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On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to schools stating that they should allow transgender students to use the restrooms associated with their gender identity. Elected officials, advocates, and others in influential education positions quickly weighed in with their views.

The guidance was released at a time when transgender rights are making waves on the national stage. North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice are suing each other in the wake of the approval of House Bill 2 by the Tar Heel State earlier this year, and a total of four federal suits have been filed in the matter, including three just last week. However, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the Education Department’s guidance to both K-12 and higher education was not an “enforcement action,” and was released after schools had asked the department for guidance.

Below is a roundup of some of the reactions to that guidance, including from members of the two congressional committees that handle K-12. While Democrats and some education advocates praised the guidance as providing important protection for transgender students, Republicans and others argued that it was an inappropriate intrusion of the federal government into education. We’ll try to keep this post updated as reactions roll in.

Statements in Favor

Hillary Clinton, Democratic presidential frontrunner

“Hillary Clinton applauds the Obama administration for taking actions this week to stand up for the rights of LGBT people -- and particularly for the rights of transgender people -- across the country,” Clinton campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. “As president, she will fight to make sure all Americans can live their lives free from discrimination.”

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., Ranking Member of the House Education Committee

“The Departments of Education and Justice should be commended for releasing this important guidance regarding the rights of transgender students in educational facilities. The timing of this guidance can help to quell the unfounded fears that have been spurred by damaging bills in some states. This guidance can also help schools to familiarize themselves with the expectations of the law, so that they may intelligently protect the rights and dignity of transgender students and, indeed, all students.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

Gov. Dannel Malloy, D-Conn.

Los Angeles Superintendent Michelle King

Tom Torlakson, Superintendent, California Department of Education

“All students deserve a safe and supportive school environment. I strongly support the action by President Obama to make sure all states follow the lead of California and protect the rights of each and every student.”

Lily Eskelen-Garcia, President, National Education Association

Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

National Association of Secondary School Principals

“We are proud that the guidance is already a reality in many schools and a sincere aspiration in others. The guidance from the Obama administration reaffirms that school leaders are on the right path and renews their charge to maintain the dignity of each student in the school. School leaders see the treatment of transgender students through the lens of equity.”

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Advocacy Group

Campus Pride, LGBTQ Awareness Group

“We applaud President Obama for his leadership and these guidelines that make it clear that discrimination toward transgender students is against the law. There is now direction, without any doubt, for public and federally funded colleges and universities that trans students are entitled to using facilities consistent with their gender identity.”

Statements in Opposition

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Chairman of the Senate Education Committee

“This is the kind of issue that parents, schools boards, communities, students and teachers should be allowed to work out in a practical way with a maximum amount of respect for the individual rights of all students. Insofar as the federal government goes, it’s up to Congress to write the law, not the executive departments. And guidance issued by the departments does not amount to federal law and should not be treated as such.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., Member of the House Education Committee

“Today’s directive is yet another outrageous example of the Obama administration exceeding its constitutionally-granted authority and attempting to change law through executive fiat. This action ignores the views of millions of students, parents, teachers, and administrators across the country. It is unacceptable and unlawful.”

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., Member of the House Education Committee

“He is ignoring the legitimate concerns of parents, students, teachers, and administrators. This isn’t about equality; it’s about furthering his radical social agenda, and I won’t stand for it. Americans deserve a president who is just as concerned about their safety and success as he is about being politically correct.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa

On C-SPAN and quoted in The Hill, King said on Friday: “I oppose that piece of policy. I think ... it is an executive overreach. And it’s a topic we’re likely to bring up in a future hearing before the task force that I chair.” King heads a task force examining presidential overreach in executive orders and regulations.

Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La.

Gov. Pat McCrory, R-N.C.

“This national bathroom, locker room and shower policy for almost every business, university and now K-12 school in our country changes generations of gender etiquette and privacy norms which parents, children and employees have expected in the most personal and private settings of their everyday lives. Most Americans, including this governor, believe that government is searching for a solution to a problem that has yet to be defined.”

Joy Hofmeister, Superintendent, Oklahoma Department of Education

“It nearly defies belief that the Obama Administration now wants to direct how Oklahoma schools and districts operate our bathrooms. Furthermore, I find it disturbing that this ‘joint guidance’ carries an implicit threat of loss of federal funds. In the midst of a historic funding crisis for public education, schools should not be burdened with this sort of overreach yet again.”

Heritage Action, Conservative Political Advocacy Organization

And Here Are Some Possibly Hard-to-Characterize Responses

National School Boards Association

“On April 10, NSBA issued a comprehensive guide, ‘Transgender Students in Schools,’ to help school districts navigate the unsettled law on gender identity and Title IX. Decisions impacting the day-to-day activities within our nation’s schools are inherently local and NSBA’s guidance seeks to inform those local decisions by clarifying existing law. The guidance issued today by the Departments of Education and Justice adds another voice to an ongoing conversation about how gender identity is addressed, and expresses an interpretation of Title IX that is unsettled law. A dispute about the intent of the federal law must ultimately be resolved by the courts and the Congress.”

Donald Trump, Presumptive GOP Presidential Nominee

“Well, I believe it should be states’ rights. I think the state should make the decision, I think they’re more than capable of making the decision, I felt that from the beginning,” Trump told George Stephanopoulos. “I just think it should be states’ rights.”

Then There’s Sen. Bernie Sanders

The Democratic presidential hopeful doesn’t appear to have put out a statement about the guidance (we’ve asked his campaign for comment, and we’ll update this post if we get a response or see his reaction elsewhere). But he’s been clear in his support for transgender right, such as in this tweet from last March about North Carolina’s House Bill 2: