ATLANTA — Georgia's top education official said Friday that state school districts don't have to comply with the Obama administration's recent guidance that transgender students at public schools be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
State Superintendent Richard Woods, a Republican, said the guidance, contained in a May 13 joint letter from the Departments of Education and Justice, "does not have the force of law." But the directive from President Barack Obama's administration says schools that refuse to comply could lose federal aid — nearly $2 billion statewide in Georgia for the coming year.
"If the federal government does decide to withhold federal funds, enforce this directive, or bring suit against any district in Georgia because of a decision a local district makes, we will work with all parties to take appropriate action," Woods wrote to school district superintendents around the state.
The federal guidance says civil rights law requires schools to provide "a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, including transgender students." Courts so far have issued mixed rulings on whether transgender people are protected by federal civil rights law.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this week asked Woods to provide guidance to school districts. Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens didn't promise to take legal action against federal authorities as in other Republican-led states, however, despite pressure from other GOP officials in Georgia.
Woods said in Friday's letter that he's confident local education officials "will continue to appropriately address concerns surrounding this complex and sensitive matter." Officials in at least one Georgia district this week criticized the Obama administration's guidance as "federal overreach."
Officials with Gwinnett County Public Schools said they would continue using "sex-designated restroom facilities" but would add "gender-neutral facilities." The federal guidance allows schools to provide alternate spaces to all students asking for more privacy, but also says transgender students must be allowed to access facilities consistent with their gender identity.