One of the best ways to protect LGBTQ students might be fighting for school choice

The Obama administration’s guidance allowing transgender students to use their preferred bathrooms and locker rooms was in effect for just nine months. But for LGBTQ advocates and progressives, President Trump’s recent revocation feels like turning the clock back to the 1950s.

The rollback sparked a blaze of angst from transgender activists, celebrities, individual school districts, leading Democrats and even some Republicans.

As a supporter of LGBTQ rights, I’m huddling around this dumpster fire with all of you. I, too, feel frustrated and heartbroken. Mostly I keep thinking about all the moms and dads out there with the tough job of validating confused and frightened children. But I’m not here to waste time condemning federal guidance I can’t change, or speculating on whether the president and his cabinet give a damn about protecting marginalized kids.

I’m here to call out the hypocrisy I see from my fellow progressives.

Many of you are hostile to education policies that promise to deliver what you are rightly demanding now for LGBTQ youth: safe, supportive and inclusive schools. It’s not enough to be fired up about transgender bathroom protections as part of your daily Facebook resistance to Trump. The uncomfortable truth is that your staunch opposition to school choice might be imperiling LGBTQ kids, too.

The harsh reality

Opposition to school choice undermines access to the very learning environments you say all students deserve. And if you fight school choice in your community while never lacking for safe options for your own kids, that’s privilege at its finest—especially if your kids are straight, cisgender or have never been bullied to the brink of suicide—and we need to talk about it.

Many of the students who leave traditional public schools for alternatives do so because they are bullied, marginalized or feel unsafe at school. If you want to erode your faith in humanity, a quick Google search about the prevalence of bullying and teen/child suicide will do it. My own search yielded several pages of results in and around my community of Columbus, Ohio.

Research confirms that transgender and non-gender conforming persons attempt suicide at rates higher than in the general population, and that LGBTQ youth broadly are at high risk. We also know these groups are disproportionately stigmatized and bullied, and therefore can benefit the most from school choice.

In the midst of such depressing news are hopeful stories, too. Given the robust school choice sector in my state (360+ public charter options, five scholarship/voucher programs, and some inter-district open enrollment) students can find alternatives and experience a sea change in mental health.

A life-changing option

Progressives who reflexively and dogmatically oppose choice are demonstrating how little they know about the realities facing families and students who make these decisions. I’ve seen friends directly impacted by teen suicide; others have been able to avert crisis by changing schools. Those options were made available to them because of school choice programs, and because of the groundwork laid by choice advocates whom progressives largely caricature and demonize.

The life-saving power of school options is on full display at one charter school in my community, Arts and College Preparatory Academy (ACPA). ACPA is a high-performing, arts-focused college preparatory high school whose very mission is to provide “an environment that is safe, inclusive, and progressive.” The school is a paragon of tolerance, inclusion and safety for teens, many of whom felt victimized in their previous schools.

In 2012, it was awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Education for the Equality Project, a student-led performance project meant to teach younger students tolerance and curb bullying. In 2014, it was the only charter school in the nation to receive a federal dissemination grant—this time for its unique Voice curriculum, meant to “challenge educators to reflect on how they support marginalized and under-served groups of students.”

To progressives angry at the revocation of Obama’s transgender guidance, I hope you take a moment to also consider the broader public (and private) education landscape and the role that choice plays in keeping students safe. If you are among those who spent much energy lambasting Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, for her stances on school choice, I encourage you to widen your lens.

Talk to a charter school student, online student or private school scholarship recipient who left her traditional public school for reasons related to gender identity, sexual orientation and/or bullying. There are hundreds—maybe thousands—of students in your community whose emotional health and safety might be a stake.

You’re right to worry about transgender students right now, but don’t let that concern be limited to the latest federal ruling. Challenge the dogma that dominates education policy discussions, do your own research and be open to the idea that one of the best ways to protect LGBTQ students might be challenging partisan thinking within your own political party.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in a slightly different form by Education Post

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.