Under House subcommittee grilling last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused Democrat demands she withhold federal education dollars from schools that “discriminate” against gay students. When framed that way, it’s understandable that media and citizen voices erupted in outrage.
But Secretary DeVos does not advocate discrimination against gays – or any particular ideological policy an American school might have. She supports school choice, which is a set of changes to the current structure of school funding that allows parents a wider set of options in how to educate their children using the school funds to which all Americans contribute.
Shamefully, in interrogating Secretary DeVos, Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) twice misleadingly suggested racial discrimination was also at issue. She asked whether voucher programs (a kind of school choice) allow schools to discriminate on “sexual orientation, race, special needs” and whether a state-supported school could exclude African-American students.
DeVos correctly and succinctly responded that civil rights laws prohibit such discrimination. Which didn’t stop media and online claims like this flat-out wrong Patheos headline: “Betsy DeVos: Schools Rejecting Black and Gay Students Should Still Get Federal Funding.”
The “black as well as gay” talk exists only to distract observers by appealing to their sympathy for civil rights. But virtually no religions and schools dissent from the basic American belief in racial equality. Whether homosexuality and heterosexuality are equivalent, though, is much more controversial within traditionalist religions and schools. In fact, in some quarters the liberal view hardly exists.
If we’re going to expand school choice – and for the next few years, at least, we are, then all schools must be treated equally. The real discrimination being proposed after the DeVos hearing is against schools with a particular religious viewpoint. In a country with a First Amendment, that can’t happen.
I of course feel for gay youth facing schools that reject them. But maintaining government neutrality toward ideas we reject is essential to American freedom. The Jewish lawyers at the ACLU who sued in 1977 to make sure Nazis could march in Skokie followed America’s highest values. Unlike many European countries, the United States never blocks “hate speech” in newspapers and books. Similarly, the federal government should have a hands-off position toward how homosexuality is taught in American schools.
Just twenty years ago, educational pressure would more likely have come from traditionalists trying to block federal dollars from schools that were too PRO-gay. Using the federal government to force schools to isolate and alienate gay students is a dystopian scare tactic on my part, right?
Certainly not. I remember the early 1990s, when I worked for the then-largest gay political organization, the Human Rights Campaign Fund. We constantly monitored C-SPAN so that when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) would propose one of his “no promo homo” bills (that’s what we called them) we could start calling our friends in the Senate to fight him. If passed, the laws would have withheld federal funding from schools that allowed any “promotion” or even discussion of homosexuality.
Well, those didn’t pass and thus it’s a non-issue, right?
Wrong again. Maybe not at the federal level, but seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas) still have such laws. Schools in Alabama, for example, must teach “in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public”; and South Carolina schools may not discuss “alternative sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships.”
Imagine if parents in Austin, fed up with Texas’s restrictive rules, founded a school that would teach tolerance and acceptance; or a Quaker school in Tulsa wanted a pro-gay curriculum. Under the precedent currently advocated by DeVos’s antagonists, the federal government could strip funding from those private and religious schools because they were too pro-gay
And if you think American history only “bends” toward increased tolerance, you haven’t checked the news in the last twelve months.
Neutral government policy toward ideas and their expression is messy. It means college students hear speakers whose ideas threaten them. It means bookstores will sell books people consider racist. And it means some schools have policies and curricula that distress young people already quite vulnerable in struggling with coming out.
Terrible stuff. But it’s the best system we have. Clear-headed LGBT people thinking long-range will tolerate ideological school policies we find pernicious. In fact, there’s a word for a system in which bad ideas are protected so good ideas can also be protected when everyone else thinks they’re bad:
It’s called “America.”