Metro Weekly

Betsy DeVos threatens to withhold money over transgender athletes

Education Department says schools allowing trans athletes to compete based on their gender identity will lose federal money starting Oct. 1

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The U.S. Department of Education is threatening to withhold millions of dollars in federal aid from Connecticut schools that do not withdraw from an athletic conference that allows transgender athletes to compete on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.

The money in question is part of a five-year grant totaling $45 million, that was earmarked to help schools desegregate. Under the program, districts in New Haven, Hartford, and Groton that operate magnet schools receive the money, which helps pay for students from Black and Latino communities to attend high-performing schools outside their neighborhoods. About $18 million remains to be distributed.

But the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has warned that unless the three districts withdraw from the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference by Oct. 1, it will not release the desegregation money. The department’s objection to the CIAC is its policies allowing transgender student-athletes to compete based on their gender identity.

The CIAC is currently being sued by three cisgender female track and field athletes who claim that they have lost out on awards, honors, and potential scholarship opportunities after being forced to compete against two transgender girls. One of the plaintiffs, Chelsea Mitchell, even won two indoor track state titles in head-to-head competition against one of the transgender athletes, but lawyers with the anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Mitchell and her co-plaintiffs, claim that even if Mitchell personally beat transgender athletes, their participation in women’s sports denies opportunities to other cisgender women.

Officials with the CIAC argue that their policies conform with Connecticut’s civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Trump administration, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in particular, has championed school choice programs, ostensibly on the premise that choice will offer better school options to historically marginalized populations. However, because of the administration’s opposition to transgender rights and desire to punish the CIAC, it is now poised to deny people of color in Connecticut educational opportunities.

“It’s effectively extortion,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker told The New York Times, noting that a loss of $3 million would mean having to cut or suspend programs. “The federal government is trying to force us to take a side against transgender individuals.”

Michael Graner, the superintendent of Groton Public Schools, which could lose an estimated $1.5 million, says that expects to lay off at least four teachers at middle schools that do not have sports teams if the Education Department withholds the funds.

Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said it had given the three school districts several opportunities to cut ties with the CIAC — even though none of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, or the transgender students against whom they competed, are from those three districts.

“It’s not extortion to require school districts to follow federal law,” Morabito said in response to Elicker’s comments. “In fact, it’s the opposite. Congress requires the department to withhold funds from schools that aren’t in compliance with the law.”

The law that the Education Department alleges is being broken is Title IX, a law that prohibits discrimination based on sex. In May, the Education Department warned the CIAC that it considers its transgender athlete policy a violation of the 1972 law. In August, it sent a revised letter to the school districts, arguing that they should adopt it strict interpretation of Title IX and use that as the justification for severing ties with the CIAC.

See also: Federal court blocks Idaho’s law banning transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that LGBTQ people are covered by Title IX’s protections insofar as employment, the Trump administration has argued that Title IX, as originally written, was only intended to prohibit discrimination against, and provide educational and athletic opportunities for, students whose assigned gender at birth was female. The policy in Connecticut, if allowed to proceed, could foreshadow similar actions against other states, 16 of which have similar athletic policies.

Michelle Laubin, a lawyer representing the New Haven and Groton schools, said the Education Department’s threat undercuts the very rationale for the existence of the department’s Office for Civil Rights.

“If the school district declines to engage in discrimination for transgender youth, the result is less education funding to support students of color in desegregation efforts in Connecticut,” she said. “I never thought I’d see a day when the Office for Civil Rights would be advocating either of those policies.

The Human Rights Campaign denounced the Education Department’s threat to withhold money marked for desegregation as reprehensible. The organization noted that the department previously moved to rescind Obama-era guidance advising schools to treat transgender students according to their gender identity shortly after President Trump took office. DeVos later refused to change the department’s current stance on transgender students until the courts “clarify” the extent to which Title IX does or does not protect them.

“From day one of her tenure, Betsy DeVos has sought to undermine the safety, dignity and civil rights of students of color, LGBTQ students — especially transgender students — students with disabilities and survivors of sexual assault. DeVos’s decision to withhold millions of dollars in desegregation aid from Connecticut schools will have national implications resulting in harm to transgender athletes and students of color,” HRC President Alphonso David said in a statement.

“Transgender athletes have every right to play sports and participate in athletic activities in accordance with their gender identity. Any suggestion otherwise is a blatant attempt to discriminate,” David added. “This is offensive and unacceptable. We will fight this decision and hold DeVos and the Trump-Pence administration accountable this November.”

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