During a House hearing last week, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos refused to say whether private schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and their families would be eligible for federal funding under a proposed voucher initiative. Print coverage of the hearing and her remarks largely failed to expose the pervasive problem of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in state-funded voucher programs.
On May 24, Betsy DeVos testified before the House Committee on Appropriations on the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 education budget. DeVos was questioned at length about the budget’s proposed federal voucher program, which re-directs public money to pay all or part of the private school tuition for participating students. Lighthouse Christian Academy, an Indiana private school that receives public voucher money while openly discriminating against LGBTQ students and families, was at the center of the debate. DeVos repeatedly refused to rule out allowing schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and families to access federal funding.
A Media Matters search of U.S. newspapers available in Nexis returned 50 news stories, op-eds, and editorials between May 24 and 31 on the DeVos hearing (20 original stories, 30 reprints). Of these, only one original story, in The Washington Post, briefly mentioned that voucher schools other than Lighthouse Christian Academy discriminate against LGBTQ students and families: “Researchers have found that many states allow religious schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to deny admission to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students or children with LGBT parents.”
No other story stated that other schools discriminate against LGBTQ students and families, mentioned any other state where discrimination has been found, or discussed existing research on discrimination in voucher programs.
As the Post alluded to, research has demonstrated a pervasive pattern of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in voucher schools across several states.
- In North Carolina, The Century Foundation characterized North Carolina’s voucher program as “highly discriminatory” and found multiple examples of explicit anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Multiple other researchers found widespread anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the North Carolina voucher program.
- In Georgia, the Southern Education Foundation found that at least 115 private schools, representing at least a quarter of all participating voucher schools, discriminate against LGBTQ students and/or families. According to The New York Times, “Public information about the scholarship program is limited by law, so the number [of schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students] is probably much higher, according to the foundation.”
- In Indiana, NPR reported that the Indiana Department of Education says schools are prohibited from denying entry based only on “race, color, national origin or disability” -- not sexual orientation -- and that there is “evidence that these protections are limited and open to interpretation." The open discrimination of Indiana's Lighthouse Christian Academy was also raised in the committee hearing.
It is likely that many more voucher schools covertly discriminate against LGBTQ students and their families because state voucher programs permit schools to discriminate.
A 2016 study in the Peabody Journal of Education titled “Dollars to Discriminate” examined the language of all existing state voucher statutes and found that “none of the 25 voucher programs studied prohibit discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation.”This means that no existing voucher programs protect LGBTQ students from discrimination.
Failure to prohibit discrimination in state voucher programs has led to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ students and families by hundreds of schools receiving millions of public dollars. Media coverage should reflect the fact that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is already a serious problem in existing voucher programs, and that any federal voucher program that fails to address this discrimination would be likely to amplify the problem.
A Nexis search was conducted for U.S. newspapers and wires using the search terms “DeVos” and “voucher” or “private school” or “lgbtq” or “lgbt” or “gender” or “sexuality” or “sexual orientation” for one week starting on the hearing date (5/24/17-5/31/17).