Thus sayeth Betsy DeVos. Fourteen times to be exact. But what does it mean? DeVos recently went before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee and was grilled over the proposed 2018 education budget. Devos was asked several times and by several lawmakers if, under a federal voucher program, she would prohibit private schools from discriminating against LGBTQ students and children with disabilities. Her response was always the same, it was some variation of any institution or school that “receives federal funds must follow the law.” She never said more than that. Her answer became a robotic drone.
It is a valid question given that Devos has a history of supporting gay conversion therapy. Several private schools have excluded children with disabilities and those that identify as LGBTQ. It is troubling to hear the Secretary of Education respond without affirmatively indicating that she would support LGBTQ students because there is currently no federal law that protects the rights of these students. What we do have is an ambiguous, at best, sentence from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” However, despite years of debate in courts, the phrase “basis of sex” has never been established to include sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, we have a problem.
If DeVos is stating that we will follow federal law, then in essence she is saying that there is a tacit inference of no protection for these students and that she is okay with letting these students suffer from discrimination.
Further, in an attempt to gain clarification on the matter, the departments of Education and Justice under Obama issued a letter telling districts that Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination does in fact include LGBTQ students, citing that it “encompasses discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status.” Unfortunately, in February, the new President rescinded that guidance. To her credit, DeVos opposed to that move but clearly has no influence over the President. Bottom line: that move left those students vulnerable once again.
In the case of students with disabilities, the law really isn’t that much better. While we have long standing laws to protect students with disabilities, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), experts say that they only offer limited protection to students in a private school.
Betsy DeVos has left us with a glaring question. Will the Education Department work to prevent discrimination in a federal voucher program given the current limitations of federal law? We need more than what she was offering. It’s clear that we have a fight coming. I just do not see any way to support a voucher system that doesn’t support all students! Sorry Betsy, you have to do better than your stock robotic answer!
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