Fla. GOP Lawmaker: No Fix Needed for School Voucher Program as More Companies Pull Funds Over LGBTQ Policies
Private schools receiving taxpayer money through vouchers will likely be able to continue to discriminate against LGBTQ students, after a key GOP lawmaker indicated he won’t take steps to deny funds to schools with such policies.
State Sen. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee and who is a staunch supporter of the Tax Credit Scholarship voucher program, said he doesn’t want the state to meddle in parents’ decisions on where they send their child to school.
“The money goes to the parents,” said Diaz. “The parents make the decision. A parent is never going to put a child in a situation that is not beneficial for the child, and if it is not beneficial, they have the ability to move them.”
Two large banks, Fifth Third National Bank and Wells Fargo, announced this week they would stop participating in the voucher program after an Orlando Sentinel report last week found that 156 private schools with anti-gay policies educated more than 20,800 students through the program last year. That’s about 14% of the 147,000 students receiving a scholarship through the program. Some of the schools merely have anti-gay policies in their hand books while others deny admission to gay students and have policies to expel them if their sexual orientation is discovered.
Democrats have pressed Republican legislative leaders to hear bills that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation within the voucher program the last two years. They stepped up those efforts Thursday in light of the moves from Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani said she filed her bill last year after the Sentinel reported on schools in the Orlando area with anti-LGBTQ policies. This year’s version, HB 45, hasn’t received a hearing this year.
“At the time we felt that one school was bad enough and it was a very simple fix: just ensure that there is no type of policy that discriminates against children not just for their sexual orientation but also their disability status,” said Eskamani, D-Orlando.
The Tax Credit Scholarship program is the state’s largest voucher program, and was originally designed to give scholarships to low-income families but has been expanded over the years, and currently households earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $51,500 for a family of four, are eligible for full scholarships of up to $9,197. Children in households with income of up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level, or $66,950 for a family of four, can receive partial scholarships.
Companies that sign up for the program can have part of their tax liability diverted to the scholarships.
Partisan fights over the program have erupted nearly every year since it was created, with Republicans and school choice advocates generally pushing to expand it and most Democrats and teachers unions opposing those efforts.
On Tuesday, a House panel passed a new plan to expand the program further by increasing the maximum household income level by 25% each year that more than 5 percent of existing scholarships haven’t been awarded. The bill also would require organizations like Step up for Students, which administer the scholarship program, to be audited once every three years, instead of the annual audits they undergo currently.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be even less transparent with the private school voucher program,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who has publicly called on companies to stop participating in the program.
Smith said he thinks more companies will start to withdraw from the program, but Diaz said the recent pullouts by the large banks won’t disrupt the program as a whole.
“Companies make decisions based on their shareholders, who are in charge, on ownership. It is not for us to get involved in that,” Diaz said. “And yes, if (contributions are reduced) there could be less scholarships and more of a waiting list, which would be a shame. But I think if you do a review of the entire program of all the schools participating and take a survey of parents I think you are going to find the parents are happy and that’s where the important part is.”