When a biologically female student walked into the boys’ locker room in Chasco Middle School in Pasco County, Florida, recently, she quite literally caught some male students with their pants down.
When the boys ran to their gym teacher, embarrassed over being “observed changing by an obvious girl,” the teacher was not permitted—because of a school district gag order—to talk to them about it. Nor had he been permitted to warn them about possibly confronting a naked biological female in their locker room. When the gym teacher refused to supervise the locker room while the girl undressed, school administrators put him on administrative leave and threatened to transfer him to a different school.
For many parents, this state of affairs is profoundly problematic. For Democrats, it is social progress. For pusillanimous Republicans, many of whom still cling to platitudes about the public school system of 50 years ago, it’s a problem to be ignored.
But there is a policy solution to this issue which, if properly communicated and implemented, would reap profound political and cultural benefits for all American students: universal school choice. Whatever your opinion of transgender rights or locker rooms, these school policies should be set by the free choices of parents. This would be a welcome détente in the culture war that has spilled over into public schools and been made worse by the one-size-fits-all education status quo.
School Choice Would Free Parents and Students
The situation in Pasco County presents Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis an opportunity to become America’s leading education governor, and to revolutionize the nature, purpose, and political appeal of school choice. Traditionally, state-level Republicans have expended a great deal of political capital to promote school choice as a policy to benefit a small, mostly Democratic constituency, while offering their suburban and rural constituents nothing more than rhetoric about flexibility and opportunity.
But this episode in Pasco County shows that, for many parents, local control is functionally dead. School administrators often care more about the approbation of politically correct activist groups than the moral preferences of parents. The only way to revive real democratic control is to empower parents to withdraw their children and take their taxpayer money with them.
Sometimes the cultural shove comes from Washington. The Pasco County school board has cited Obama-era federal precedents to justify their actions, and not without merit. Another school district, while willing to make dozens of other accommodations for a trans student, requested separate locker room facilities so female students would not be exposed to the naked body of a biological male. The Obama Department of Education found that commonsense concern “unavailing,” effectively determining that any particular effort to block the exposure of teenage girls to male genitalia violated Title IX.
While the Trump administration is no longer mandating such policies, the next Democratic administration is likely to resume federal pressure to override local control and parental preference by threatening to revoke federal funding for school districts that stop short of fully exposing students to the naked bodies of the opposite sex.
Violating Parents’ Permission and Values
In the interim, the Pasco County School District has found its own way to override parents from within. The school board never actually passed any policy concerning students who identify as transgender. Rather, a single school district employee unilaterally wrote the policy, which also requires that staff use student-preferred pronouns and forbids school staff from speaking to gender-dysphoric students’ parents without student permission.
This is an alarming state of affairs for many Pasco County parents, but what power do they have? Because the school board never officially voted on this policy, school board members have not taken an official stance that could inform voters in the next election.
Without any other recourse, parents have enlisted the pro-bono aid of Liberty Counsel to try to demand that no employee be forced to use biologically incorrect pronouns, that the school district maintain the use of locker rooms on a biological basis, and that the district “prohibits all classroom LGBT political activism, specifically the drag queen coloring books.”
This episode raises two question: in how many other districts is this happening? And what can be done about it?
We do not fully know the answer to the first question, but Pasco County is not alone. Last year, a five-year-old in Georgia was allegedly sexually assaulted in a bathroom by a “gender-fluid” male classmate, after a similar districtwide policy was implemented. In California, parents have the right to be informed and opt out their children from sexual education on the results of heterosexual birds and bees, but not from “gender identity” and “gender expression” teachings. In New Jersey, a child’s parents astoundingly do not have the right to be told that their child is being treated as trans by the school.
School Choice Would Help
The answer to the second question, and the solution to growing parent disempowerment on this and the many other culture war battles in public education, is universal school choice. School districts would be less likely to take an absolutist stance about this and other contentious cultural issues if parents could credibly threaten to enroll their children in a more morally congenial school and take taxpayer money with them.Florida is already a national leader in school choice, offering private scholarships to low-income students, students with disabilities, and students who have been bullied. DeSantis could revolutionize the political appeal and cultural power of school choice by pointing to the controversy in Pasco County and proposing universal education savings accounts as the solution.
Parents have a right to have their moral voices heard within the public education system. School choice will empower them to exit it when their voices are ignored.
Inez Feltscher Stepman is a senior contributor at The Federalist. She is also a senior policy analyst at Independent Women's Forum and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a women's newsletter. Find her on Twitter @inezfeltscher.