DeVos “Refuses To Affirm” Protection for LGBTQ Students

Betsy DeVos “Refuses To Affirm” Protection for LGBTQ Students

In her second appearance before Congress in two weeks, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee and refused “to affirm” whether her department would protect LGBTQ students from discrimination. The refusal to answer questions on her intentions follows a contentious hearing late last month before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education in which DeVos argued she could see no situation where the federal government should step in to protect students from discrimination in schools.

During her testimony today before the Senate, DeVos repeatedly answered questions seeking explicit yes or no answers with a vague reply that she would force schools receiving federal funds to “follow federal law.” When pressed about law in flux within the courts – specifically, protections for students based on sexual orientation and gender identity – DeVos would not answer directly.

After establishing a baseline – that DeVos’ Department of Education would deny funds to any school that violates federal law – Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) began his line of questioning about those policies that may not be as black and white (such as Title IX disputes where some federal appeals courts have found Title IX protects LGBTQ students while others have not).

The Exchange

“But those laws are somewhat foggy in that area, so I want to be absolutely clear about what you’re saying,” Sen. Merkley said. “Are you saying that if you have a private school – private schools often set their own admissions policies – that they will not be allow to, under your program, to discriminate against LGBTQ students?”

After saying she’d said it before, DeVos reiterated, “”Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”

“And I just said federal law is foggy, so in your understanding of federal law, would such discrimination be allowed?” Sen. Merkley countered.

“On areas where the law is unsettled, this Department is not going to be issuing decrees…” DeVos began.

Sen. Merkley interrupted DeVos to interject, “Please, just answer the question.”

“That is a matter for Congress and the courts,” DeVos continued.

“Is discrimination going to be allowed or not allowed?” Sen. Merkley pressed.

“On areas of unsettled law, Congress and the Supreme Court has to decide and settle,” DeVos said.

Simultaneously, Sen. Merkley said, “Are you saying this is such an area? So discrimination is allowed?” A moment later, as DeVos paused, he continued, “Are you refusing to answer the question?”

“I’m going back to what I said earlier,” DeVos said.

“Well, what you said earlier didn’t help us since it’s an area of unsettled law,” Sen. Merkley interjected. “But I think you just said is where it’s unsettled such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that’s incorrect please correct it for the record.”

He added, “How about discrimination based on religion? Will such discrimination be allowed with charter or private schools?”

In her response, DeVos reverted back to her original retort. “Again, on schools that receive federal funds, federal law must be followed,” she said.

Sen. Merkley pressed again for a response telling DeVos to “answer the question.”

“Schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law, period,” DeVos said.

Clearly frustrated, Sen. Merkley said, “You’re refusing to answer 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 ban discrimination based on religion.”

“Sir, that’s not what I said. Discrimination in any form is wrong,” DeVos insisted.

“I’ve asked you to clarify and you’ve refused to do so,” Sen. Merkley pointed out as DeVos responded.

“I don’t support discrimination in any form,” DeVos added.

“Does your program ban discrimination, yes or no?” Sen. Merkley asked again.

“What program are you talking about?” DeVos asked.

“Your charter school and your private school grant program,”  Sen. Merkley clarified.

“As I said before, and let me say it again, schools that receive federal funds need to follow federal law. Period,” DeVos responded.

“Saying the same thing ten times when you’re not answering the question does not help,” Sen. Merkley pointed out as DeVos finished her answer.

Context

Throughout her testimony, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos maintained that she would hold schools receiving federal money accountable only to settled federal law. When pressed, she refused to offer a clear yes or no answer as to whether she would protect LGBTQ students if a federally-funded private or charter school enacted policies to discriminate against or deny entrance to students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This is not a new position for DeVos.

In her House hearing two weeks ago, DeVos took a similar stance in refusing to go on record as saying she would protect the nation’s at-risk LGBTQ children and teenagers. In fact, she responded to a question about protecting LGBTQ students in the House hearing by stating programs need to be set up to “allow for parents to make choices” and to offer states “flexibility” in enacting their own regulations.

That DeVos offered similar platitudes to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee today during a hearing on Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget is crucial as it spells out yet another population segment the budget will harm.

Responding to DeVos’ testimony, Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD, released a statement saying in part, “By once again turning a blind eye to LGBTQ students who experience discrimination in school, Secretary DeVos continues to prove why she was the wrong choice to lead our nation’s education system.” She added, “DeVos once claimed she was an LGBTQ ally, but has now supported back to back policies that would erase LGBTQ students from classrooms. If she wants to be known as more than an anti-LGBTQ activist the time is now to reverse course.”

Following the hearing Senator Merkley also mad ea brief statement on Twitter:

Enemy of LGBTQ People

This should go without saying at this point, but it apparently bears repeating: Betsy DeVos is not an LGBTQ ally. We pointed this out the moment her nomination was announced (as did most other LGBTQ media outlets who have tracked her and her family’s anti-LGBTQ activism for years).

Her statements today and two weeks ago add to other public statements from her pre-Cabinet private life where she campaigned to mold and change the public school system yo “advance God’s kingdom.”

Her statements follow years of donating millions to anti-LGBTQ advocacy organizations.

This same blase approach to LGBTQ student rights is what ultimately led to Donald Trump rescinding transgender guidance on the Title IX guidelines issued under the Obama administration. For someone who is against discrimination, DeVos proffered not complaint when trans students were once again placed in harm’s way.

In fact, DeVos explicitly proclaimed that transgender student protections were not a federal issue at the time those guidelines were rescinded (a moment that offered a window into her future positions in congressional hearings).

Here’s the exchange between Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Senator Jeff Merkley at the Senate hearing today:

PREVIOUSLY

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he's worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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