Betsy DeVos thinks all discrimination is wrong, but she won’t say if the Department of Education, under her authority, will withhold funds from schools that discriminate in various ways.
The U.S. secretary of education and Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, had a fiery exchange on Tuesday when DeVos testified before a Senate committee about her department’s budget.
Merkley pointedly asked DeVos if charter and private schools that receive federal funding would be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ students. DeVos countered that she’s said many times that schools that do not follow federal law will not receive federal funding.
But federal law, Merkley noted, is murky when it comes to LGBTQ discrimination. Just take the Trump administration rescinding — in a decision authorized by DeVos — Obama-era guidance under Title IX that protected transgender students’ choice to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees,” DeVos said. “That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle.”
But Merkley wouldn’t give up. He turned to students’ religious rights. “What is that law in this case, to your understanding?” he asked. “Will such religious discrimination be accepted? Answer the question.”
But DeVos returned to the same answer that private schools that receive federal funding must follow federal law. She notably has a long history of ties to Michigan’s Christian Reformed community, and her family has given grant money to numerous religious groups and Christian colleges.
Merkley then asserted that DeVos was refusing to definitively state that schools should “ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or ban discrimination based on religion.”
“Senator, that’s not what I said,” DeVos interrupted. “Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form.”
The exchange was the second time DeVos has refused to answer a question about discrimination against students. Last month, Democrats on the House Appropriations subcommittee asked DeVos if there was any instance in which she would withhold funds from private schools that discriminate against certain groups of kids. DeVos didn’t directly answer, and instead said that the U.S. had to do “something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.”
Watch DeVos spar with Merkley below.