Betsy DeVos Smiles While Endorsing States’ Rights to Discriminate Against Students

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos raised questions of states’ rights versus civil rights on Wednesday, when she implied that discriminatory schools might still receive federal funding. “The states set up the rules,” DeVos said.

DeVos spoke at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on education funding. She was called in part to understand the education cuts in President Trump’s budget proposal.

Concerns over civil rights came into focus several times. One incident was during an exchange between DeVos and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) Rep. Clark confronted DeVos regarding charter schools with discriminatory policies, specifically policies regarding LGBTQ students. Clark referenced the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Indiana, which participates in the school voucher program there and receives more than $665,000 in state funding.

Clark pressed DeVos on the Department of Education’s policy in such a case. In situations where voucher schools discriminate, and the state applies for federal funding, how would the Department respond? Clark also specifically asked if DeVos would require such schools to halt discriminatory policies in order to receive federal money.

“I believe states continue to have flexibility in putting together programs,” DeVos said. She did not clearly answer the question one way or the other, simply deferring to the states’ rights argument. In general comments regarding the budget, DeVos spoke of “ensuring every student has an equal opportunity to receive a great education,” and that the budget “focuses on returning decision-making power and flexibility to the states, where it belongs, and giving parents more control over their child’s education.”

Leaving it to the states and parents did not sit well with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Ca.,) who responded to DeVos, “to take the federal government’s responsibility out of that, it is just appalling and sad.”

DeVos added that she was “not in any way suggesting that students should not be protected,” and promised that her office would investigate allegations of discrimination.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is responsible for any such investigations. The OCR also came up in the hearing when Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) asked about reducing sexual assault cases on college campuses. DeVos once again promised full investigations. DeVos claimed support for a “fully funded OCR,” despite cuts in the Trump budget of nearly $2 million for that office.

Public accountability for private schools that receive government funding remains a trouble spot in the school voucher program. Discrimination and other accountability issues are fair game for federally funded programs, and in response to concerns, DeVos referred to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA.) DeVos explained that states devise their own ESSA plans, including rules for flexibility and accountability. “There are accountability standards … that is part of the ESSA legislation.”

While it’s true that ESSA regulations do include accountability standards, private schools are exempt from those rules, even if they participate in voucher programs.

Democratic lawmakers continued to question whether federal dollars should go to schools that discriminate. State policies and parental choices, they argued, should not supersede federal civil rights law.

DeVos never did commit to withholding funding in such cases. After her Appropriations Committee testimony, however, DeVos’ office issued a clarification. “When States design programs, and when schools implement them, it is incumbent on them to adhere to Federal law … the Department of Education can and will intervene when Federal law is broken.”