The US Department of Education has threatened to withhold school funding from Connecticut school districts over a state policy that would allow transgender children to compete against those that correspond to their gender identity in sports.
The move would withhold $18m in funding from schools, which was allocated to help schools desegregate.
This came in response to a complaint filed in February by several cisgender female track athletes who said two transgender female runners had an unfair physical advantage against them.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights determined in May that the state policy violated the civil rights of those who are not transgender.
Following the determination, the department warned officials in three Connecticut school districts that desegregation grants would not be released on 1 October unless they cut ties with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which issued the transgender policies.
The $18m the department has threatened to withhold is part of five-year grants totalling about $45 million.
The last $18m was designated for school districts in New Haven, Hartford, and southeast Connecticut so that they could operate magnet schools using a federally approved voluntary desegregation plan. This plan helped students from black and Hispanic communities to attend schools outside their neighbourhood.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker accused the federal government of “extortion” by threatening to withhold school funding.
“It’s effectively extortion,” Mr Elicker said. “The federal government is trying to force us to take a side against transgender individuals.”
He added: “It would basically mean that New Haven schoolchildren would have less access to educational opportunities. There are teachers and administrative staff that support our program that are fully funded by this grant.”
Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, told The New York Times that the school districts were given several opportunities to remove themselves from the athletic conference prior to the department choosing to withhold funding.
“It’s not extortion to require school districts to follow federal law,” Ms Morabito told the publication. “In fact, it’s the opposite. Congress requires the department to withhold funds from schools that aren’t in compliance with the law.”
Ms Morabito was referring to Title IX, a 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in programmes that receive federal funding. According to the department, allowing transgender athletes to compete against those in their gender identity violated the Title IX rights of those who are not transgender.
The Education Department under Betsy Devos has focused its attention on Connecticut, but what happens in the state could have a rippling effect on other parts of the country. In total, 16 other states have similar policies as Connecticut.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bars employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex, extended to gender identity.
Advocates thought this ruling could deter the Education Department from pursuing action against Connecticut school districts, but the department confirmed in a letter to districts on 31 August that its initial interpretation of Title IX “should be relied upon”.
Negations between the parties continued, as of Thursday evening.
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