Education Secretary Betsy DeVos embarked on a “2019 Back-to-School” tour this week, which included a stop at a school with an explicit anti-transgender policy.
DeVos visited Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Thursday for a roundtable promoting the expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which provides low- and middle-income students with publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools and currently serves 50,000 students, according to the Department of Education. While a program expansion bill passed in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the bill in June, citing its high cost.
"This legislation prompts a serious question: Why would the Commonwealth allow for the expansion of the Education Investment Tax Credit (EITC) that supports private institutions while our current public-school system remains underfunded?,” Wolf wrote in his veto message. “We have public schools that are structurally deteriorating, contaminated by lead, and staffed by teachers who are not appropriately paid and overstretched in their responsibilities. Tackling these challenges, and others, should be our collective priority.”
While DeVos’ visit most immediately involved the the future of the tax credit, it also made a statement about the treatment of transgender students in school, according to education experts.
As HuffPost first reported, Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School has a straightforward policy against transgender students and staff, likening them to those who commit “self-mutilation.”
If a student undergoes or contemplates undergoing a “sex change procedure” — terminology that has since been deemed out-of-date — the policy states, the student will no longer be able to attend the school as doing so would “violate” the agreement parents make with the school to “not act in opposition of Catholic teaching.” Such students would not be able to enroll at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School in the first place, or would be effectively kicked out should a student come out as transgender and “chemically and surgically alter their given biology” during their enrollment.
The school did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment about the policy and whether it pertains to students who present differently from the gender they were assigned at birth but do not undergo transition-related surgery. The Department of Education wouldn’t address questions about the school’s anti-trans policy either, instead opting to provide information about the roundtable.
Eliza Byard, the executive director of the LGBTQ education nonprofit GLSEN, said by using the Harrisburg school as the setting for Thursday’s roundtable, DeVos is “lifting up the school and sending a discouraging and dangerous message.”
“It’s difficult to say whether this decision was one of sheer incompetence, but given DeVos’ track record to direct funds to schools that discrimination, it appears a deliberate decision to champion a school with an anti-trans policy,” Byard told NBC News.
Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who serves as the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, has called for DeVos either to be fired or to resign over her recent school visit.
"The Department of Education is responsible for ALL students. Why are you on a constant crusade against our #LGBTQ students & teachers?" Clark wrote on Twitter, adding the hashtags #FireDevos and #ResignDevos.
Since joining the Trump administration in February 2017, DeVos has repeatedly found herself on the opposite side of LGBTQ rights advocates.
Shortly after taking office, DeVos helped rescind Obama-era guidance on transgender bathroom protections in public schools, which stated that schools must allow trans students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. Then in May 2017, DeVos dodged questions about giving money to schools that do not admit LGBTQ students, and a month later she would not commit to banning discrimination against LGBTQ students in private schools.
In 2018, the Education Department confirmed it would not investigate complaints from transgender students who are banned from using bathrooms that match their gender identity, and as recently as March, DeVos evaded a question during a House subcommittee hearing about whether she opposed discrimination against LGBTQ people in schools.
“DeVos speaks about improving the educational outcomes for students, but the irony is she’s breaking the one thing that’s working,” Byard said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen reductions in bullying targeting LGBTQ students across the country; we’re on the path to improvement for students who are hurting and need our help, but her visit to this school shows us a great deal about her vision.”