President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is pointing to Joe Biden’s vote to protect the tax-exempt status of private schools more than four decades ago as more evidence of the former senator and vice president’s “troubling” record on racial issues.
In an email last week, Trump’s campaign team highlighted Biden’s 1979 vote as a U.S. senator from Delaware to prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from investigating and revoking the tax-exempt status of private schools that discriminated against students of color—such schools were and are commonly known as “segregation academies.”
The attack by Trump’s campaign team, which cited an article about Biden’s vote in the Washington Free Beacon, dovetails with his campaign’s outreach efforts to Black voters in recent months. The president and his team have also talked school choice in recent weeks in public comments and events; some polling indicates that Black voters are relatively supportive of K-12 choice initiatives. However, recent polling of registered Black voters shows Trump trailing Biden badly—Biden had the support of 92 percent of such voters, while Trump got the nod from just 5 percent, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll published June 25.
The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment. We’ll update this piece if we hear back. Biden’s education plan includes reviving Obama administration efforts to help school desegregation efforts at the local level (more on that below).
To a certain extent, Trump’s criticism of Biden’s vote mirrors a dramatic scene from a Democratic presidential debate last year, in which then-candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., criticized Biden for opposing busing programs like the one she participated in that aimed to relieve the affects of school segregation. Biden countered that he only opposed federal mandates for busing programs. Biden’s record on busing is complicated; he opposed some anti-busing measures, but also worked as a senator in other ways to restrict the use of busing to integrate schools.
Despite the controversy spurred by Harris’ attack on Biden, his overwhelming success with Black voters in subsequent 2020 primaries was crucial for Biden become the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president. Harris, meanwhile, is in the mix to be Biden’s pick for vice president.
The Trump campaign’s fresh attack on Biden also serves as a reminder of how the Trump administration has approached segregation, and disagreements between Democrats and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about how private schools that get public funds should treat certain students.
‘These Segregated Academies Will Continue to Flourish’
Here’s the back story behind the Biden vote Trump’s campaign is alluding to: In 1971, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower-court ruling that private schools that engaged in racial discrimination were ineligible for federal tax-exempt status, and that donations to such schools were not tax-deductible. In 1979, the IRS wrote a proposed regulation specifying how it would move to strip the tax-exempt status of private schools if they were found to engage in such discrimination.
However, some lawmakers objected to the IRS’ move, and a debate ensued in Congress over whether to let the IRS proceed. In September 1979, Sen. Jacob Javits, R-N.Y., introduced an amendment to a spending bill to remove a provision essentially prohibiting the IRS from enforcing the regulation. If Congress thwarted the IRS regulation, Javits argued on the Senate floor, “These segregated academies will continue to flourish with taxpayer assistance, thus perpetuating the threat to the vitality of the public schools that have been the backbone of the American educational system.”
Javits also entered statements in support of his view from the ACLU and the National Urban League into the congressional record to buttress his case; the Trump campaign also pointed to these statements in its email last week.
But lawmakers like Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., argued on the floor that such a regulation would let the IRS improperly investigate and interfere in private schools based on arbitrary racial quotas. Helms said the IRS showed “frequent arrogance” and accused the agency of “making unfounded charges of discrimination.” Ultimately, Biden voted with Helms and other senators to defeat Javits’ proposed amendment; 54 senators voted against the amendment, while 31 voted in favor (see page 64). The congressional record does not show that Biden made any comments during the Senate floor debate about Javits’ amendment.
The issue of this IRS regulation continued to make headlines in the next few years. Congress ultimately barred the IRS from implementing the regulation, and that prohibition subsequently remained in force through the passage of continuing resolutions in Congress. In January 1982, the Reagan administration announced that the IRS would not revoke schools’ tax-exempt status on such grounds absent further congressional action.
Current IRS policy states that private schools must maintain, publicize, and abide by a racial nondiscrimination policy with respect to students, in order to maintain their nonprofit status.
How has the Trump administration approached segregation and discrimination in education and elsewhere? Let’s look at a few examples.
- In December 2016, the Obama administration unveiled $12 million in federal grants for school districts to try out integration programs, among other approaches to increasing socioeconomic diversity. It built on a $120 million Obama budget proposal intended to increase school diversity. However, the Trump administration ended the voluntary grant program in 2017.
- During congressional testimony as education secretary, DeVos has come under harsh attacks from Democratic lawmakers who’ve said that some state voucher programs she supports fund private schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students. DeVos has typically backed states’ decisions on whether vouchers can be used at such schools, but has also stressed that doesn’t mean she wants students left unprotected. Views on sexual orientation and gender identity have been linked to the free exercise of religion at some private religious schools.
- The Trump administration has proposed loosening rules under the Fair Housing Act that the administration says would provide more flexibility for development, but critics charge would make it harder to address racial segregation in housing. We wrote about that issue and its connection to education last year.
Photo: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress presidential forum last year. --AP/Susan Walsh