Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Kicking Christians Out of College

Does being an evangelical Christian automatically make one an anti-gay bigot? If so, can tolerant universities still allow such groups among their students? Those are the tricky questions highlighted in a recent New York Times article about evangelical culture and higher education. As the NYT story noted, this clash between pluralist campuses and “exclusivist” religious groups seems like a tough nut to crack.

But is it fair to assume that all evangelical students are bigots? That opposition to gay marriage pushes students beyond the bounds of polite society? To put it in the most provocative terms: Are evangelical student clubs being ousted because they are seen—sometimes unfairly—as being anti-gay?

The story opens with an update from Bowdoin College in Maine. At that elite liberal-arts school, the tiny evangelical student club has been cut off from official university support. Why? Because, like many evangelical student groups, the Bowdoin group insisted that leaders must be Christians themselves. This led to what the NYT article called a “collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies.” At Bowdoin, as at many other schools, leadership at university-sponsored clubs must be open to all students, regardless of race, religion, or sexual identity.

The official question in the Bowdoin case is not about homosexuality or same-sex marriage. But it would be easy for a casual reader to miss that. The article mentions other schools in which evangelical students have gotten into trouble for anti-gay activity. At Vanderbilt, for instance, one Christian fraternity kicked out a gay member. Indeed, it was precisely that anti-gay activism that led Vanderbilt to force student groups to sign antidiscrimination pledges.

But Bowdoin’s student group does not seem particularly fervent about issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. At least according the article, the evangelical club at Bowdoin does not have a single party line about the morality of gay marriage. It’s hard to see a group as anti-same-sex marriage if some of its members support same-sex marriage.

Some studies have suggested that the faculty leaders at universities tilt decidedly against evangelical students. One 2007 study of university faculty concluded that evangelicals were “the only religious group about which a majority of non-Evangelical faculty have negative feelings.” And, as Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found, faculty at elite schools often have a very skewed notion of evangelical belief. It does not seem like a stretch to think that these faculty prejudices might tip university policy.

For their part, evangelical intellectuals have struggled long and hard to prove that their opposition to gay marriage and, in some cases, to homosexual sex does not make them bigots. Perhaps the most vocal pundit on the issue, Ryan T. Anderson, insisted that conservatives had legitimate reasons for opposing gay marriage. But too often the other side wouldn’t listen. “Marriage re-definers,” Anderson complained in 2013,

don’t tend to say what many opponents have said, that this is a difficult question on which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree. No, they’ve said anyone who disagrees with them is the equivalent of a racist. They’ve sent a clear message: If you stand up for marriage, we will, with the help of our friends in the media, demonize and marginalize you.

Don’t get me wrong: I am personally fervently in support of same sex marriage rights. I’m opposed to locking anyone out of access to influence because of their sexual identity, religion, race, or other causes. But it seems as if universities would do well to uncouple these issues of club leadership, religious belief, and homosexual rights.

Could a student club demand religious beliefs of its leaders, while still welcoming gay and lesbian students to become leaders? Is it fair for universities to assume that evangelical belief automatically implies anti-homosexual attitudes?