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Betsy DeVos

Terry H. Schwadron

In the Harlem public elementary school where I help students catch up on their reading levels, there are many signs posted about good behavior towards others, including those that start early to remind students and teachers that LGBTQ students should not be treated “differently.”

It’s a nice lesson, subdued in this school where native Spanish-speaking students predominate. Perhaps they understand what it means to be treated as “other.” My student notes often in our stories those cases in which one character or another is not treating others with respect or fairly. In seeking meaning and intent of authors, she often has noted the ways that we treat one another.

So, something of being in the common human condition is getting through.

Passing the signs yesterday struck me especially because I had been reading the testimony of Betsy DeVos, head of the federal Department of Education, testifying about various education budget issues before Congress. In particular, she refused to say that she would enforce anti-discrimination rules for any private schools that receive public money under her school-choice programs.

Indeed, she said that states should have the right to decide whether private schools that accept publicly funded voucher students should be allowed to discriminate against students for whatever reason they want. Repeatedly, DeVos brushed back questions about policy, insisting only that parents should be able to decide what school setting works best. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal would cut $10.6 billion — or more than 13 percent — from education programs and re-invest $1.4 billion of the savings into promoting school choice.

The Washington Post reprinted the back and forth questioning between DeVos and Rep. Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-MA). Read and cringe.

Clark noted that one private school in Indiana that is a voucher school says it may deny admission to students who are LGBT or who come from a family where there is “homosexual or bisexual activity.” She asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana that it could not discriminate in that way if it were to accept federal funding through a school choice program. Clark asked what DeVos would say if a voucher school were not accepting African American students and the state “said it was okay.”

To Clark’s question about whether she would step in, DeVos responded: “Well again, the Office of Civil Rights and our Title IX protections are broadly applicable across the board, but when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students . . . ”

Clark interrupted and said, “This isn’t about parents making choices, this is about the use of federal dollars. Is there any situation? Would you say to Indiana, that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars? Or would you say the state has the flexibility?”

DeVos said: “I believe states should continue to have flexibility in putting together programs. . .”

Clark interrupted, saying: “So if I understand your testimony — I want to make sure I get this right. There is no situation of discrimination or exclusion that if a state approved it for its voucher program that you would step in and say that’s not how we are going to use our federal dollars?”

DeVos said she didn’t want to answer a hypothetical question. Clark said it wasn’t hypothetical, and asked if she saw any circumstance that the federal government would tell a state that it could not allow a private voucher school to discriminate against students.

At that point time expired, but DeVos was allowed to respond.

DeVos: “I go back to the bottom line — is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. 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.”

Devos suggested these questions were hypothetical, despite the actual Indiana case.

Of course, The Post reminded us, that DeVos said recently that people who don’t agree with expanding school choice are “flat earthers,” people who refuse to face the facts.

I disagree with enforced school choice at the cost of support for the public schools; the Education Department plans to cut 20 different programs to create a federal school-choice fund. But at least that question is open to debate.

We should not be having a debate over the legal right of schools, whether getting public money under aegis of state or federal authorities, having the legal right to discriminate against classes of students.


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