File Photo: Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol...
YURI GRIPAS

Betsy DeVos struggles to defend taxpayer-subsidized discrimination

— Updated
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is having an interesting week. On Monday, for example, the Republican opponent of public education argued that "defenders of current system" of education are "flat-earthers." I don't think she was kidding.

Yesterday, DeVos was on Capitol Hill, testifying at a House Appropriations subcommittee, where the education secretary was eager to defend Donald Trump's budget request for directing taxpayer money to private and parochial schools. Most of the hearing went about as one might expect, but an exchange between DeVos and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) was of particular interest, because it focused on the voucher movement's Achilles' heel: taxpayer-subsidized discrimination.

Slate had a good piece on what transpired:

Clark used Bloomington, Indiana's Lighthouse Christian Academy as an example. The school currently gets more than $665,000 in state funding through a school voucher program, Clark said. It also openly reserves the right to deny admittance to any student in a family where there is "homosexual or bisexual activity" or family members who practice "alternate gender identity." If Indiana applies for federal funding for schools like these, Clark asked DeVos, would her Department of Education require them to stop discriminating against LGBTQ students and families?

DeVos didn't say yes or no. She just smiled and stuck to the generations-old cover for violent oppression in America. "The states set up the rules," she said. "I believe states continue to have flexibility in putting together programs."

The Massachusetts Democrat reminded DeVos that the Department of Education is "the backstop for students and the right to access a quality education." Asked whether she'd be prepared to prevent discrimination with federal funds, DeVos was non-committal.

In fact, the Slate piece added, the education secretary "declined to provide even one example of any kind of discrimination that might preclude a school from receiving federal funding."

It's an under-appreciated aspect of the debate. In the Trump/DeVos model, the United States would gradually privatize K-12 education, with taxpayer money subsidizing tuition at private and parochial schools. What happens at those schools would be up to administrators, parents, and states.

But among the problems is one of the biggest differences between public and private education: public schools welcome everyone and private schools don't. Private schools not only often rely on entrance exams for admission, they've also discriminated for years against prospective students for all sorts of reasons, including religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

When private schools do this with private funding, it's entirely permissible, and people who don't like it are welcome to take their kids and their money elsewhere. The issue becomes far more complex once the Trump administration and congressional Republicans start diverting federal funds to subsidize these private schools that discriminate.

What's DeVos' answer to this? As of yesterday, she prefers not to talk about it. That's not a sustainable position.