Under a grilling during a congressional hearing Wednesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to say she’ll speak out against discrimination against LGBT students — or even students experiencing racial discrimination.
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) pressed DeVos during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Lighthouse Christian Academy, a private school in Indiana the lawmaker says is the recipient of school voucher money, but may not admit students from families with “homosexual or bisexual activity” or “practicing alternate identity.”
Clark asked DeVos, who’s advocating a budget that calls for a $250 million increase in school voucher funds, if she’ll “stand up that this school will be open to all students.”
DeVos first dodged the question, saying she’ll like to defer to earlier comment from lawmakers, and still refused to denounce the policy when asked to draw a line on state flexibility and reject money for schools discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, race or special needs.
“For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” DeVos said.
Pressed further by Clark on whether the Education Department would withhold school vouchers on any situation regarding discrimination, DeVos again refused to answer.
“The Office of Civil Rights and our Title IX protections are broadly applicable across the board,” DeVos said. “But when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students…”
Davis interrupting by saying “this isn’t about parents making choices, this is about use of federal dollars,” and pressed DeVos, who provided a non-answer about flexibility.
“So, if I understand your testimony,” Davis responded, “I want to make sure I get this right. There’s no situation of discrimination or exclusion that if a state approved it for its voucher program, that you would step and say that’s now how we’re going to use our federal dollars? There’s no situation, if the state approved it, that you would put the state flexibility over our students? Is that your testimony?”
DeVos began to say the situation was “hypothetical,” but Davis responded the situation was real and pointed to Lighthouse Christian Academy. At this point, the Republican chair of the committee informed Davis her time had expired.
“The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them,” DeVos said. “We have to do something different, we have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, and that is the focus, and states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions and framework on behalf of their students.”
Davis, seemingly exasperated, concluded, “I am shocked that you could not come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students.”
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, was among those denouncing DeVos for refusing to denounce anti-LGBT discrimination.
“Taxpayer funds should never be used to discriminate against LGBTQ students, and it is shocking and disappointing that Secretary DeVos won’t make this basic commitment,” Stacy said. “Secretary DeVos has failed again to stand up for all students and ensure every child is able to receive an education free from harassment and discrimination.”
Federal law against discrimination in schools also prohibits charter and private schools from discriminating against students. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin for any school accepting federal funds, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex for any school accepting federal funds. There is an exemption in Title IX for religious schools, but not for charter or secular private schools.
DeVos, who was narrowly confirmed by the Senate, has been a controversial figure and despised by charter school opponents for her support for school vouchers.
Earlier this year, DeVos and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked Obama-era guidance barring schools from discriminating against transgender students or denying them access to the restroom consistent with their gender identity.
Media reports indicated she resisted the change, but she ultimately agreed to it. Afterwards, DeVos met with transgender students and a trio of LGBT advocacy groups at the Education Department.
Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, also denounced DeVos and said the education secretary was “turning a blind eye to LGBTQ students who experience discrimination in school.”
“DeVos once claimed she was an LGBTQ ally, but has now supported back to back policies that would erase LGBTQ students from classrooms,” Ellis said. “If she wants to be known as more than an anti-LGBTQ activist the time is now to reverse course.”