When asked by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) whether religious discrimination would be allowed in private schools receiving federal funding, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would not respond directly to the question. Instead, she insisted on repeating this phrase: “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.” The question came during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing regarding the recent Department of Education budget request for FY2018, which suggests investing millions of dollars in private school vouchers and charter schools. The investment of public money in private schools has some wondering whether federal law would apply to those institutions. Would religious schools (and private schools, more broadly) be able to expel LGBTQ and disabled students?
Back and Forth
Senator Patty Murray first asked DeVos about her stance on discrimination, to which the Secretary of Education responded, “Let me be clear: Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law. Period.” Then, when Merkley suggested that federal law is “somewhat foggy” with respect to LGBTQ rights (as evinced by recent federal court cases), Ms. DeVos stuck to her script, saying several times, “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”
And after Merkley pushed a little harder, the Secretary responded noncommittally with “Discrimination in any form is wrong,” a statement that makes no claim about the position of her department. And finally when Merkley asked DeVos concretely whether private schools that receive federal money could discriminate against disabled and LGBTQ people, she said, “where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees.”
During their back and forth, Merkley proclaimed “today, the secretary of education before this committee refused to affirm she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or would ban discrimination based on religion.”
The entire exchange was a continuation of a back-and-forth that took place during the House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the same topic. During that hearing, Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif) said to DeVos, “To take the federal government’s responsibility out [discrimination in school] is just appalling and sad.”
The Budget Proposal
The “America First” budget – a proposal that Congress may or may not follow come May – cuts the budget for the Education Department by 13.5 percent, which amounts to a hefty $9.2 billion reduction. That reduction involves cutting 22 programs “that are not effective, that duplicate other efforts, or that do not serve national needs,” according to the budget proposal. The plan majorly affects students from low income households by eliminating Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), which are offered to 1.6 million low-income students every year. Additionally, the plan suggests a significant reduction to Federal Work-Study, which helps students find work after graduation.
In addition to making massive cuts, the administration’s plan proposes increasing investment in private school voucher programs by $1.4 billion in the short term and $20 billion in the long term. Of those funds, $250 million would be put toward a private school-choice program and $168 million would go toward charter schools.
In light of the extreme budgetary reductions, the recent failure of similar policies in Kansas and DeVos’ noncommittal response to questions regarding discrimination in schools, it’s important to reiterate the words of a New America Foundation analysis: “This budget request is nothing more than that—a request to Congress, unlikely to be heeded and subject to the tinkering and votes of hundreds of members of Congress.”