Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
“Betsy DeVos Refuses to Rule Out Giving Funds to Schools That Discriminate.”
[Editor: This post was updated on May 27} The May 24 New York Times headline above marked an escalation in the partisan battle against school choice initiatives that have challenged the dominance of traditional public schools and teachers unions.
The shrill, confusing headline itself will surely prompt thoughtful readers to ask: “Schools that discriminate” against whom? And could we have a bit more context up front?
But the Times story never delves into the substance or accuracy of the partisan allegation in its headline.
The Trump administration has proposed big cuts in federal education programs deemed by the White House to be ineffective or too expensive, though some of those dollars will be shifted to states and local school districts. The budget blueprint also includes $250 million for optional government-funded school voucher programs across the U.S.
So what about those “schools that discriminate”?
During a House appropriations subcommittee hearing, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, took fire from several House Democrats, who rolled out a new line of attack.
“Representative Katherine M. Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked how Ms. DeVos would respond to a state that gave federal funding to a school that denied admission to students from lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender families,” the Times reported.
Clark’s broadside marked the rollout of fresh partisan talking points designed to smear voucher programs and private religious schools, which have a constitutionally-protected right to abide by biblical teaching on marriage and sexual ethics.
CNN reported that Clark “brought up a school in Indiana — Lighthouse Christian Academy — that receives more than $600,000 in state voucher funds and explicitly denies access to students with LGBT parents in its literature.”
Critics of the proposed federal voucher program have also demanded that participating schools accept students with “special needs,” an issue DeVos has left to the states’ discretion.
At present, Catholic diocesan and independent religious schools have adopted a variety of admission policies regarding LGBT students and families.
Simular initiatives and related debates are roiling Christian and secular private schools and universities. Yet as Maggie Gallagher argues here, the "lack of any standard," makes it difficult, if not impossible, to remain in compliance with new sexual orthodoxties for long. Religious schools will have to take a stand and then hold their ground.
For now, this warning shot from Clark suggests that those inner city parochial schools, which educate poor black and Hispanic students but do not accept children with same-sex parents, or make accommodations for “transgender” students, will be shamed on social media.
The resulting carnage may prompt church leaders to weigh their support for voucher programs that help inner city schools stay afloat, but may come with strings attached.
Yet most U.S. bishops view these strong, safe schools, where the majority of the student body may not be Catholic, as the primary engine for social mobility in troubled urban neighborhoods.
Research shows that Catholic schools in low-income areas boast graduation rates, with most underprivileged students attending college, while just 50% of students may receive a diploma at neighborhood public schools.
“A recent Brookings/Harvard study found that African American students in New York who won and used a scholarship to attend private school starting in kindergarten were 24% more likely to attend college than those who applied but didn’t win a scholarship,” the New York Post reported in its more sympathetic coverage of private programs that underwrite tuition for poor students.
Meanwhile, the Times’ story also raises questions about the likely response of Secretary DeVos and individual states to complaints of “discrimination” at religious schools that participate in voucher programs.
During her public comments this week, DeVos said the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights “would vigorously investigate any discrimination claims,” but offered few specifics, according to the Times.
She also noted that states could opt out of the voucher program or provide a framework that addressed concerns about discrimination against LGBT families or special needs students.
But the Education Secretary — who is a strong supporter of LGBT rights and clashed with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the White House’s decision to rescind Obama’s policy of bathroom rights for “transgender” students — believes that parents have every right to enroll their children in schools that best served their needs.
“Too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them,” she said. “We have to do something different.”