DeVos won’t vouch for LGBT students under school voucher programs

She hasn’t issued an Educational Degree No. 24, but US Department of Education Sec. Betsy DeVos is not a fan favorite in the LGBT community. Her consistent push to introduce school voucher programs is seen by many as discriminatory, as has her refusal to condemn private schools that discriminate against LGBT students.

“Pressed by Democrats on how she would protect the rights of LGBT students, DeVos said in areas where the law is ‘unsettled,’ which she said included areas of bias against gay people, her department would not be ‘issuing decrees,’” according to a recent piece in the publication Inside Higher Ed. “Even if the law is unclear, that doesn’t remove the obligation of the department to offer guidance and enforce the law.”

Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Inside Higher Ed that there was hope DeVos would “clarify that she believes all schools that accept federal funds must follow federal law.”

“Now that we finally have that clarification from her, it’s apparent that we should put an asterisk on it,” Tobin said.

In the few short months since taking office, DeVos already rolled back protections on LGBT students. In February, she rescinded guidance documents related to bathroom usage for transgender youths. Just last week, her department’s Office for Civil Rights closed a discrimination case involving an elementary school student in Ohio.

Candice Jackson, who is head of that office, told Washington Post that the findings of discrimination were withdrawn because those findings were based on the rescinded bathroom guidance documents.

Arguably the greatest concern about LGBT discrimination in schools comes from the voucher program that both DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence are big proponents of.

‘A nice idea’

“It’s always surprising to me that you should be able to choose your college and be able to pursue the academics and social environment that you want, but you shouldn’t be able to be around those people when you’re in K through 12,” said Christian Zsilavetz, founder of the private, LGBT-affirming Pride School Atlanta. “If you are a right-wing, fundamentalist Christian, you would probably like to be around people who are largely right-wing fundamentalist Christians when you go to college. Go for it. Just like many people go to liberal universities because they want to be places where they’re not a target.”

He said new private schools open up regularly for that reason: to provide an environment that fills a specific need, such as a safe space for LGBT students.

Indiana’s had a school voucher program for a number of years. It sounds simple: Each year, a certain amount of taxpayer dollars, per child in attendance, is allocated to public schools. Under a school voucher program, those dollars could be transferred to a private school if that child’s family would prefer her not attend a public school, but otherwise could not afford the private school’s tuition.

“I think I agree with the idea of being able to go to a private school with public funding, because the schools that are available to many students are not necessarily the best schools to be had, just by virtue of where you live,” said Zsilavetz, who called school vouchers “a nice idea.” “But this idea of being able to go to a school that discriminates, like the religious schools, that’s a challenge for me. … It’s another thing to allow schools that discriminate, especially in this day and age, on the basis of LGBT identity of the child or the family, I think that’s ridiculous to allow them to receive public funding.”

For example, he said, Pride School would not be allowed to receive funding if it discriminated against students on something like race. And even Catholic schools don’t discriminate on religion — many students who attend those schools are not Catholic, he said.

In Indiana, one of those religious schools that receives public funding despite openly discriminating against LGBT students is Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington. In its application information, Lighthouse requires parents to confirm their families abide by the school’s “Biblical Lifestyle Statement,” which prohibits students and their families engage in “heterosexual activity outside of a one man-one-woman marriage,” “homosexual or bisexual activity or any form of sexual immorality,” “practicing alternate gender identity or any other identity or behavior that violates God’s ordained distinctions between the two sexes, male and female,” along with viewing pornography, drinking, cursing and stealing.

In the Congressional hearing referenced in the Inside Higher Ed story, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Massachusetts) challenged DeVos’ proposed $250 million increase in school voucher funds, asking the secretary if she’d stand up to make sure Lighthouse would be open to all students.

According to the Washington Blade, DeVos dodged the question.

Attempts to reach the US Department of Education for clarification on DeVos’ stance on school vouchers and discrimination were unsuccessful as of press time.

School choice in the Peach State

Right now, Georgia has two school choice-related programs. The Qualified Expense Education Tax Credit and the Special Needs Scholarship Program were both created through legislation during the 2007 to 2008 legislative session.

“The funding for scholarships for the Georgia tax credit program is provided by pre-approved donations from Georgia taxpayers,” said Meghan Frick, spokeswoman for Georgia Department of Education.

These donations are made to student scholarship organizations, and the taxpayer receives a credit on her income tax. The scholarships are provided to parents of eligible children who plan to attend private schools.

The Georgia Department of Revenue pre-approves Georgians who wish to donate to the tax credit program, and there is a donation cap. According to the Georgia Student Scholarship Organization, in 2013 that cap was $58 million. Married couples filing jointly could donate up to $2,500; married individuals filing singly could give up to $1,250; unmarried people could donate up to $1,000; and select corporations up to $10,000 until that cap was reached.

On the other hand, the Special Needs Scholarship Program is a school choice program.

“If a student meets the eligibility criteria for the program, a parent or guardian has the right to request a transfer from a student’s current public school to another public school within their district of residence; another public school district outside their district of residence; one of the three state schools for the blind or deaf; or a private school authorized to participate in the Special Needs Scholarship Program,” Frick said.

This program does use public funding “to pay for tuition and fees” at private schools authorized by the state Department of Education.

If Georgia were to move forward with an Indiana-style voucher system, it would require a change in state law, not Department of Education policy, Frick said.

Right now, Pride School does not qualify for either of the Georgia school choice-related programs. It is funded entirely from donations and tuition dollars, none of which come from taxpayer coffers, Zsilavetz said.

Even if Pride School were covered by an Indiana-style school voucher program, there are still two major barriers for applicants: transportation and tuition. Most vouchers don’t cover the full cost of tuition, which can be pricey depending on the private school.

“Your average private school in Georgia is typically anywhere from $14,000 up. We’re on the low end because we’re new and we’re small, so we don’t have as much need, and we rent space for $1,000 a month. We minimize our expenses as much as possible,” Zsilavetz said.