Betsy Devos stands at a mic with Donald Trump behind her.

DeVos’ Vouchers Could License Discrimination Against LGBTQ Youth

At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley grilled Betsy DeVos on whether her school vouchers plan would prohibit schools receiving vouchers from discriminating against LGBTQ students or on the basis of religion. She refused to give a clear answer. And here’s why: she can’t. Because of a loophole in federal civil rights law, DeVos’ voucher program opens the door to further legalized discrimination against LGBTQ students and girls.

Trump and DeVos have proposed a $1.4 billion expansion of “school choice” programs, including school vouchers. Vouchers use public money to pay for tuition at private, generally religious, schools. For example, of 300 private schools that benefited from Mike Pence’s voucher plan for Indiana in the 2015-16 school year, only four were not overtly religious.

Even if these schools were required to follow federal civil rights law, many religious schools would still be able to discriminate by seeking exemptions from Title IX.

Title IX is a decades-old federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education and requires all federally-funded schools to provide equal educational opportunities to students, regardless of their gender. In addition to requiring schools to respond to sexual assault, the law prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ, pregnant, and parenting students. But here’s the catch: religiously affiliated schools (the same schools that more students would go to under a voucher program) can get waivers exempting them from any provision of Title IX inconsistent with the school’s religious beliefs.

Historically, Title IX waivers have been rare (only two colleges asked for them during the George W. Bush Presidency). But in 2015, as courts were recognizing that Title IX protects LGBTQ students,journalists discovered a dramatic spike in schools requesting exemptions from Title IX; 60 universities requested them in 2015 alone. These waivers are nothing more than a license to discriminate, allowing schools to discriminate against, deny admission to, or even punish students for being trans, having a same-sex relationship, becoming pregnant, or having premarital sex. Those aren’t hypotheticals. Just ask Bryan Copeland and Greg Bullard, whose 3-year-old was turned away from a pre-K program because he had two dads; the school told them “homosexuality” was a “lifestyle in opposition to its mission.” Or ask Maddi Runkles, who was suspended because she’s pregnant and won’t be allowed to walk at her high school graduation this month.

DeVos’ voucher program would likely push many students into religious and parochial schools eligible for waivers from Title IX — and therefore, put queer and trans students at greater risk. And there’s little doubt that religious schools receiving vouchers will be eligible for waivers: the exemption to Title IX  is so broad Department of Education has literally never turned down a higher education institution’s waiver request.

At her hearing, DeVos repeatedly said that school receiving taxpayer dollars in the form of vouchers would have to follow federal law. But her answer obscures the fact that her program would push many students into schools that can legally discriminate against LGBTQ students and girls.

Title IX’s religiously exemption is egregiously broad, and Congress should narrow it; taxpayer funds shouldn’t be subsidizing discrimination in schools. But failing that, the least we can do is oppose DeVos’ school privatization plan, which would shuttle students into schools that have every intention of violating  their civil rights.

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Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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