The Kansas State Board of Education has voted to ignore the Obama administration’s directive on accommodating transgender students, joining a wave of opposition from politicians nationwide who say the decree amounts to federal overreach.
The Kansas board argued that local schools are best suited to decide how to handle issues that transgender students confront in school, including which bathrooms they are allowed to use and which name and gender appears on class rosters and other school records.
Its vote to push back against the Obama administration’s decree — which requires schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity — was unanimous Tuesday afternoon.
“We are firm in our belief that decisions about the care, safety and well-being of all students are best made by the local school district based on the needs and desires of the students, parents and communities they serve,” said the statement adopted Tuesday.
“In Kansas, like many other states, our schools have been addressing transgender student needs with sensitivity and success for many years.”
The Obama administration’s guidance is not legally binding, but schools and districts that don’t comply can be investigated and can lose federal education funding if they refuse to come into compliance. Its not clear whether the state board’s vote is enough to put Kansas at risk of losing its federal education funding, which amounts to about 9 percent of the state’s K-12 education budget, according to a spokeswoman for the state education department.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.
Obama administration officials and LGBT activists have said that the directive is necessary to ensure that schools are protecting the civil rights of some of their most vulnerable students. Transgender people report high rates of bullying and harassment, as well as depression and attempted suicide.
But the directive has sparked a backlash from politicians and activists who say that the administration’s stance — and particularly its stance on bathroom and locker room access for transgender children — amounts to a federal overreach that endangers students’ privacy.
Texas and 10 other states have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the administration’s directive, saying it “has no basis in law” and could cause “seismic changes in the operations of the nation’s school districts.” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said earlier this month that Kansas would also sue, but that it had not decided whether to join the 11 other states or file a separate suit.
Not everyone agrees that Kansas schools are effectively serving transgender children.
Stephanie Mott, executive director of the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project, said she regularly receives phone calls, emails and text messages from students who don’t feel comfortable in school because their teachers insist on calling them by the wrong name or won’t allow them to use the restroom that matches their identity.
Mott called the board’s vote “extraordinarily sad.”
“The state board of education has no idea what it’s like to be a transgender person in this state, especially a transgender youth in a school that’s not accommodating,” she said.
Mott and other activists say that Republican state lawmakers are turning transgender children into a bargaining chip in a long-running fight over school funding, threatening to introduce legislation that would force children to use bathrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates unless Democrats fall into line with the Republican majority.
State Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita) told the Wichita Eagle that he plans to introduce the transgender bathroom bill only if Democrats “muck us up” during an upcoming special session on school funding. If the legislature fails to come up with an equitable funding plan, the state supreme court could force public schools to shut down at the end of the month.
“The school board is sitting up there going, ‘Everything is wonderful in Kansas schools,’ and at the same time we have a legislator who’s going, ‘I’m going to make it more difficult for all transgender students in the state of Kansas,'” Mott said. “There’s a huge disconnect there.”
In an interview Wednesday, Whitmer said that he wants the special session to move quickly and stay focused on funding, and would only introduce the bathroom bill if Democrats try to pass new gun controls or other such unrelated measures. “Once you put your pet issues on the back burner, I’ll do the same with mine,” he said.
Whitmer said he does expect the legislature to consider the bathroom bill during its next regular session.
Here is the full text of the statement adopted by the Kansas board on Tuesday:
The Kansas State Board of Education believes that every child has the right to a high quality education delivered within a safe, inclusive and supportive school system.
In Kansas, like many other states, our schools have been addressing transgender student needs with sensitivity and success for many years. Just as every child is unique, so too is every school community. With that understanding, we are firm in our belief that decisions about the care, safety and well-being of all students are best made by the local school district based on the needs and desires of the students, parents and communities they serve.
The recent directive from the civil rights offices of the United States Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the treatment of transgender students removes the local control needed to effectively address this sensitive issue. We must continue to provide our schools the flexibility needed to work with their students, families and communities to effectively address the needs of the students they serve.