Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said this week that her pick for U.S. secretary of education would have to win approval from a “young trans person” who believes the nominee is “committed to creating a welcoming environment” in the nation’s schools.
Warren, who’s campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination ahead of next week’s Iowa caucuses, made that statement in response to a question from a college student at a Cedar Rapids event who said her lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender peers often don’t learn about their own LGBTQ issues in history or sex education classes. The student asked how Warren would make sure schools are more inclusive.
Warren is one of several candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who have committed to appointing someone with experience teaching in a public school to the role. Appearing alongside Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness at the Iowa event, Warren discussed an additional requirement in her response.
“I have two qualifications I have talked about over and over,” Warren said. “The first, it has to be someone who has taught in a public school. ... And part two, because it came from a young trans person who asked about a welcoming community, and I said it starts with the secretary of education who has a lot to do with where we spend our money, what gets advanced in our schools, and what the standards are. I said I’m going to have an education secretary that this young trans person interviews on my behalf, and only if this person believes that our secretary of education nominee is committed to creating a welcoming environment, a safe environment, and a full education curriculum that works for everyone, [only then will] that person advance to be secretary of education.”
It’s unclear if Warren was talking about a specific young transgender person and where the question first arose. The Warren campaign did not respond to emailed questions from Education Week Thursday.
Why Transgender Student Issues Are a 2020 Talking Point
Democratic presidential candidates have frequently criticized U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and her approach to civil rights specifically, as they discuss their education priorities on the trail. That’s in part because many differ from President Barack Obama on issues like charter schools and accountability. But they applaud his administration’s approach to education civil rights, an approach that notably shifted under DeVos.
In one of her first official acts, DeVos teamed with then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind Obama-era civil rights guidance that asserted that the sex discrimination protections in Title IX protect transgender students in school. The Obama administration enforced that viewpoint, directing schools to respect transgender students’ pronouns and new names and to allow them to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.
And, while civil rights organizations still press that viewpoint in court, the Trump administration doesn’t enforce it in schools, which has left some transgender students vulnerable and unprotected, advocacy groups argue.
Most Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to reinstate that guidance, or to pass broad bills that add protections for gender identity and sexual orientation to education civil rights laws.
Reality Check: The Education Secretary Has Little Say Over Curriculum
While Warren is correct that the next education secretary will have influence over the interpretation and enforcement of civil rights laws, how discretionary grants are directed, and the issues the Education Department champions, it’s unlikely that person will have much influence over curriculum that’s used in schools. More specifically, it’s unlikely federal officials will have much say in how that curriculum addresses LGBTQ history and sex education, a concern that’s largely at the discretion of states and districts.
In history classes, LGBTQ issues are largely seen as an “add-on” or not addressed at all, my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote in 2017.
And seven states have laws on the books that limit what teachers can say about LGBTQ people in sex education and other classes.