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Kansas Education Board Votes to Ignore Transgender Decree

It is unclear whether the 10-0 vote will endanger over $479 million in federal aid, or about 10 percent of the state's education budget

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    Unisex signs hang outside bathrooms at Toast Paninoteca on May 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. The Obama administration gave schools guidance, clarifying obligations to give students access to the bathroom that conforms with their gender identity.

    The Kansas State Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to ignore a directive from President Obama's administration that public schools allow transgender students to use restrooms matching their gender identity, and instead the board left decisions up to school districts.

    What remains unclear is whether the 10-0 vote will endanger over $479 million in federal aid, or about 10 percent of the state's education budget.

    Scott Gordon, general counsel for the state's education department, said that the threat of loss of federal funding is not sweeping. The entire state would not lose federal education funding if one school is found out of compliance with the anti-discrimination law. Gordon told The Associated Press that he didn't think the board's statement would jeopardize federal aid.

    He noted that only one transgender student had filed a complaint for alleged discrimination with the Office of Civil Rights in 2015, which board members cited as proof that districts already have adequate regulations in place.

    "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," the state board said in their statement.

    Tuesday's board meeting follows one last month in which members denounced the federal decree but voted against issuing a public statement rebuking it. Members said at the time that they needed more time to discuss the matter with attorneys and to review school districts' policies.

    The board has general supervision of schools and can set academic standards and requirements to remain accredited. It has the power to enforce a statewide policy.

    State GOP leaders have called the decree an encroachment on local control, and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced earlier this month that the state will sue the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, which issued the decree. The Republican-led Senate also issued a nonbinding resolution condemning the federal mandate.

    Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp sent letters to school leaders in Western and Central Kansas on Friday urging them to ignore the guidelines, despite the threat of losing federal funding.

    "Neither our girls or boys should be forced to undress in the presence of individuals who are of the opposite biological sex," Huelskamp said in the letter. "Our children should also not be subjected to a greater risk of threats from predators who seek to do them harm."

    Under the state board's statement, school districts will be allowed to continue practicing regulations that mirror the federal directive. Lawrence and Topeka Public Schools allow students to use the facilities that match their gender identity, but some gender neutral bathrooms are also available for students who want increased privacy.

    Transgender activist Stephanie Mott said that students whose gender is "invalidated" are at an increased risk of harassment and suicide attempts.

    "I think it's necessary for us to make sure that all children have a safe place to go to school, including LGBT kids and transgender kids," Mott said. "When there are states and schools that are refusing to do that, then I think it's appropriate for us to do what we need to do to protect our kids."

    Texas is leading an 11-state lawsuit that accuses the federal government of turning schools into "laboratories for a massive social experiment" with the directive. At the time Schmidt announced Kansas would challenge the law, he said he had not yet decided whether to join that lawsuit or sue separately.