U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday that her agency would not give federal funds to private schools that defy federal antidiscrimination laws. However, she suggested it is not the Department of Education’s job to prevent discrimination against students in cases in which federal antidiscrimination laws are murky, such as with LGBTQ students.
DeVos took part in a contentious hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education on Tuesday morning. There, Democrats and Republicans hammered the secretary on the administration’s proposed budget, which would cut billions of dollars in funding for public education while increasing money to support school choice programs. The budget directs some of this funding toward helping students attend private and religious schools.
While under questioning from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), DeVos wouldn’t definitively say whether private schools receiving federal funds would be punished for religious discrimination or discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students. She maintained that these schools would be required to follow federal antidiscrimination laws, but said the Department of Education would not be issuing any directives beyond that.
“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle,” DeVos said, when pressed by Merkley.
“I think you just said where it’s unsettled, such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that’s incorrect, please correct it for the record,” Merkley replied, then went on to ask about religious discrimination.
DeVos gave an unspecific answer again: “Schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law, period.”
In response, Merkley said DeVos had dodged the question.
“I think that’s very important for the public to know, that today, the secretary of education, before this committee, refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or would ban discrimination based on religion,” he said.
“Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form,” DeVos replied.
Students with disabilities receive protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other federal rules protect students against racial and gender discrimination in schools, Education Week reports. In the past, some schools participating in state-level voucher programs have used public money to bar LGBTQ students or turn away students with special needs.
Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) also pressed DeVos on these issues Tuesday. The secretary repeated a familiar refrain: “Any school that accepts federal funds, will follow federal laws, period, without discrimination.”
Several weeks ago, DeVos faced a similar line of questioning while appearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee. In that exchange, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) asked DeVos if her department would intervene in cases where federally funded private schools try to ban LGBTQ students. In response, DeVos said that states should have the flexibility to determine rules of admission for private school choice programs.
“The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions,” DeVos said at the time. “States and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions and framework.”
DeVos’ responses also received some praise in Tuesday’s Senate hearing. Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told DeVos that it is not her job “to decide what the federal law says, if it’s murky. ... That’s the job of either the courts or the Congress, not the Department of Education. I think that’s what I hear you repeatedly saying and I agree with that.”
DeVos has faced widespread opposition from civil rights groups and groups advocating for LGBTQ students. On Monday, a small group of prominent civil rights leaders spoke out against DeVos in anticipation of the budget hearing.
“Secretary DeVos’ withdrawal of lifesaving guidance supporting transgender students has already been repudiated by the courts. Her recent statements that she would let private schools openly discriminate with federal dollars are unacceptable,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement Monday.