LGBTQ Issues Roil Florida School-Choice Debate

Private school policies get advocate scrutiny

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Even as Florida lawmakers consider an expansion of the state's voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, a fierce debate simmers over how participating private schools treat LGBTQ students and families.

A small group of lawmakers' perennial push to require anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students in the programs gained fresh momentum after a January Orlando Sentinel investigation.

The newspaper found 83 participating private schools had written policies barring attendance by LGBTQ students and, in some cases, the children of gay and lesbian couples. It found that 73 other religious schools that accept students through the state programs call being gay or transgender a sin, but that their published policies aren't clear about how that view affects admissions or student discipline.

The uproar surrounding the country's largest private school choice programs provides a window into debates that are flaring around the country on respect for religious freedom, protections for student civil rights, and what states should require of private schools that receive public funding. And those conversations are likely to intensify as the Trump administration touts a federal plan for tax-credit scholarships.

Florida has six private school choice programs—including state-funded vouchers and a program that provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to businesses in exchange for donations to scholarships. Some are aimed at specific populations, like students with disabilities and students who've been bullied in public schools. The largest serves more than 100,000 students from low-income families. Lawmakers are considering a proposal to adjust eligibility requirements and to more than double participation in the 18,000-student Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which they approved last year.

Advocates for LGBTQ Floridians said the Orlando Sentinel investigation revealed the extent of discrimination. Some businesses that had publicly supported gay and transgender rights said they would withdraw their support from one of the tax-credit scholarship programs.

But school choice supporters said the issue was overblown. Religious schools have an interest in policies and teachings that align with their faith, they argued, and families who disagree with those policies can seek out other options. Some Republican state lawmakers noted that no complaints had been filed with state officials over discrimination in the programs.

Florida Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who has filed various amendments to school voucher bills to add anti-discrimination protections, rejected that argument.

"The discrimination has already taken place. It exists in writing," Smith said in an interview with Education Week. "It's comparable to saying that lunch counters in the 1950s and '60s that advertised 'whites only,' that the solution to that discrimination was to find a restaurant that's a better fit. That's absurd."

Before a legislative committee approved a bill to expand eligibility for the programs last week, Smith unsuccessfully pushed for two amendments. One would have required a study of how the policies of schools that receive students through the programs address LGBTQ identity and hairstyles like braids and twists that are common among black students. Another amendment would have required participating private schools to publicly post their policies on admissions, discipline, and bullying and to report bullying incidents under the rules that apply to public schools.

Appealing to 'Good Will'

Representatives for Step Up for Students, the organization that administers tax-credit scholarships, declined an interview request. The organization leaves the choice of schools up to families who receive the scholarships, Public Affairs Manager Patrick Gibbons said in response to emailed questions. State education officials and representatives for Step Up for Students have met with gay rights organizations, Smith, and other lawmakers who support legislative changes. But Step Up for Students is concerned that conversations are difficult given "a political atmosphere that grows more toxic and divisive by the second," Gibbons said in an email.

"Some of the more simplistic solutions that have been suggested would face serious constitutional challenges," he wrote. "Seeking progress without understanding those complications is likely to yield unintended consequences to the scholarship program, potentially harming Florida's most disadvantaged students, including LGBTQ students. Those unintended consequences can best be avoided if people of good will, who share deep concern for our most vulnerable students, will thoughtfully consider all the evidence."

School choice advocates frequently point to schools like Foundation Academy, a Christian school in Jacksonville that accepts LGBTQ students, including many who've complained of bullying in their former schools.

With that approach, some might expect Principal Nadia Hionides to support anti-discrimination requirements, but she told Education Week she thinks the better approach is to change minds through discussions, not legislative mandates. Hionides appeared at the legislative hearing last week alongside high school student Elijah Robinson, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community but did not use a particular label to describe himself to lawmakers. Robinson, a tax-credit scholarship recipient who frequently appears at school choice events, says he was relentlessly bullied at his former school.

"Please don't do anything that will result in fewer scholarships because, if that happens, students like me will get hurt not helped," he said.

Policymakers around the country have closely watched the conversation in Florida.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a long-time champion of private school choice programs, has pushed for few restrictions. Because the decision of how to use scholarships is in the hands of parents, schools' policies don't amount to government-sanctioned discrimination, private school choice backers argue. DeVos' federal proposal calls for $5 billion in tax credits in exchange for contributions to scholarship programs in participating states. That plan would not allow states to exclude schools based on religious affiliation, "including religiously or mission-based policies or practices."

The Trump administration supported Montana parents who argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the state violated their religious liberty when it prohibited recipients of state-level tax-credit scholarships from using them at religious schools. It also weighed into a separate lawsuit, arguing that Maryland was wrong to exclude a Christian school from its voucher program after officials found it did not have a state-mandated LGBTQ non-discrimination policy.

Public Response

Nicole Haagenson, a parent who spoke to the Orlando Sentinel for its stories on the programs, said she was shocked to see both the number of schools with restrictive policies and the public response to the reporting.

When Haagenson and her wife, Cari, sought to enroll two of their five children in a Vero Beach Christian school 10 years ago, their applications were rejected because the couple is same-sex. Despite the school's policies, the couple did not expect the news because some of the children had previously attended the school when Cari was married to a man, Haagenson said.

"I said 'They can't discriminate; they are accepting public funds.' It was so shocking to me that, yeah, they absolutely can," she told Education Week. "It had nothing to do with my kids. They did nothing wrong. All we wanted for them was to go get a good education."

Since the Orlando Sentinel report, several businesses pledged to end support for one of the tax-credit scholarship programs. The only business with a recent contribution above $1 million, Fifth Third Bank, later reversed course, Gibbon said. Corporate contributions for the tax-credit scholarship program total about $700 million per year, Gibbons said.

Haagenson said she doesn't want to take opportunities away from any children, but the public reaction has been meaningful to her family.

"It made me feel validated that they were responding," she said.

Vol. 39, Issue 24, Page 6

Published in Print: March 4, 2020, as LGBTQ Issues Roil Florida School-Choice Debate
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