Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Again Fails to Say Voucher Programs Shouldn’t Allow Discrimination

Public money should fund public schools, but President Donald J. Trump’s federal budget would send $250 million in public money to vouchers for private, often religious, schools. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos once again went to the Hill to defend the budget, this time, before a Senate committee.

The issue on the minds of several Senators was whether the voucher program DeVos and Trump have promised to adopt will require the private schools that take government-funded vouchers to adhere to the same federal civil rights protections as public schools. Of course, they should have to adhere to the same civil rights laws: federal dollars should not fund schools that discriminate against students. DeVos, however, doesn’t share that view. And, most state voucher programs and the only federally-funded voucher program—the District of Columbia voucher—allow private schools that take government funds to deny students most or all of the civil rights protections they would receive at a public school.

The Senators’ concern over this issue likely was prompted by DeVos’ answers to similar questions during a May 24 congressional committee. Then, she repeatedly answered the question of whether schools that take vouchers should adhere to federal civil rights laws by saying states should enforce civil rights laws “in their own way.” Said another way: no.

It appears DeVos has done some homework since she last testified and this time she came to the hearing with a different answer to the question: “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law,” DeVos said in response to each Senator—U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Jack Reed (D-RI)—who asked her whether schools that accept vouchers should have to follow federal civil rights laws. It appears that she only learned that one line though, as she was not able to explain what she meant by that or of answering any of the more detailed questions she was asked about how that position would play out in real life.

When Murray asked DeVos whether she would allow discrimination in voucher programs. Her response: “Let me be clear, schools that receive federal funds, must follow federal law. Period.”

But that answer isn’t actually as clear as it appears. You see, most voucher programs are premised on the falsehood that the federal funds do not go to the school, but to the student who then pays the school. That allows these schools to claim they aren’t receiving federal funds and claim that the civil rights laws that attach to those funds don’t apply to them. That is why students who use the federally-funded D.C. voucher program don’t get the same protections as students in public schools. 

Merkley didn’t appear to be buying her new line either. To try to clarify what she meant, he pressed her on the question of whether schools that accept vouchers would be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ students. But, she refused to answer his question clearly. 

Finally, Reed tried to find out what DeVos meant when she said schools that receive federal funds must adhere to federal civil rights laws: “But what does that [phrase] mean? Would they [a voucher school] have to accept a disabled child?”

DeVos again responded with the same line, and then, in what appears to have been her beginning to explain that federal civil rights wouldn’t apply to that student, she said: “States have implemented programs that parents elect into. Parents are making that decision…” She stopped herself though, before explaining that under most voucher programs, parents are deemed to have chosen to place their students in private schools and therefore lose most of the federal laws that protect students with disabilities. 

At a minimum, DeVos’ answers reveal that she knows her desire to let private schools discriminate with federal dollars is unpopular. Students deserve better than private school vouchers that undermine civil rights protections.

The issue of discrimination is one of the many reasons Congress should reject any efforts to impose a federal voucher program.  Rather than diverting funds for private schools, we should be funding the public school system, which educates all students.

You can fight back against Trump and DeVos’ plan to adopt school vouches that would allow discrimination. Tell your members of Congress that public money should fund public schools.