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Amid backlash over anti-LGBTQ schools, Florida lawmakers push even less voucher oversight

Several Democrats said the Florida Legislature needs to develop the “political courage” to stop discrimination in state-supported private schools.
Rep.  Jennifer Sullivan, R- Mount Dora.
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R- Mount Dora. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 30, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Despite mounting backlash over schools with anti-LGTBQ policies that accept state support, Florida lawmakers from both parties advanced a bill Thursday that would trim oversight of the main nonprofit that administers private school vouchers at the center of the controversy.

The bill, which passed the House Education committee, is a package of changes to Florida’s voucher programs that allow low-income or bullied students to attend private schools using state funds. In many areas, the bill expands access to the vouchers, by expanding the income bracket for eligibility, and increasing the rate at which the number of vouchers will increase in the future.

Also included in the bill, however, is a reduction in the state’s oversight of those programs. An annual audit of the nonprofit organizations that administers the vouchers would change so that it would be conducted only once every three years.

While heralding the opportunities the vouchers provide students, lawmakers barely discussed the change in oversight.

That’s despite the fact that an Orlando Sentinel investigation of 1,000 private religious schools that accepted the vouchers for low-income students found that 83 of them have policies explicitly barring LGBTQ students, or, sometimes, the children of LGBTQ parents, from attending their schools. Seventy-three additional schools have policies or material that say being gay or transgender was sinful, but it’s unclear how that stance affected admissions, according to the Sentinel’s report.

Since the Sentinel reporting was published, five companies announced they would not be donating toward one of Florida’s voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, in the future. Two of them had already ceased giving before the stories were published. Through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, companies give money to fund the vouchers, which is then deducted from their taxes.

On Thursday, Wyndham Destinations, an Orlando-based timeshare and hotel company, told NBC News that it was suspending its donations because of the reports.

“We are today discontinuing our support and funding for Step Up For Students and hope that they organization will quickly work with the Florida Legislature to immediately end any discriminatory practice existing withing the voucher program,” the company said, referencing the primary nonprofit that administers the vouchers.

Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing also tweeted Thursday: “Cigar City Brewing has not taken part in the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program with the Step Up Foundation since 2018 and has no current plans to continue.”

RELATED: Major banks to pull contributions for Florida school vouchers because of anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, who chairs the House Education committee, said the change in the auditing schedule is still appropriate.

“It was a direct recommendation from the (Florida) Auditor General ... we just took the recommendation," she said. “I think it’s in accordance with what a normal district would go through.”

Yet when asked to respond to the reporting about the anti-LGBTQ policies, Sullivan suggested that students facing expulsion for being gay or transgender should take their voucher to different school.

“That’s one of the beauties of choice: there’s over 1,500 schools to go to. Not every school is going to be the best fit for every student,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about a choice program: that a parent has that opportunity to go to multiple schools and see what culture is going to best benefit that student.”

Sullivan added that there have been instances of students in public schools who didn’t feel supported and were able to use a voucher to attend a private school “where they feel loved and cared for.”

Ron Matus, director of policy and public affairs for Step Up for Students said the auditing change “makes sense” because it’s similar to school districts. He also noted that the law change only applies to operational audits, while the group would still have a financial audit every year.

Matus also clarified that Step Up has no authority over which schools participate in the voucher program, noting that that power rests with the Legislature and the Department of Education.

But Democratic Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Anna Eskamani, both from Orlando, along with St. Petersburg Sen. Darryl Rouson, told reporters on Thursday that they haven’t given up on forcing the Legislature to prohibit discrimination in private schools with such policies. Eskamani and Rouson have filed bills to do just that — but the proposals haven’t been heard.

“We’re creating a generation of children who don’t understand inclusivity, a generation of children who thinks this is OK,” Eskamani said. She added that the Legislature needs the “political courage” to address this issue.

Smith and Eskamani said they are speaking with Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran on Thursday evening and they emphasized that the Department of Education could also make the necessary changes without the passage of a bill.

The lawmakers are also speaking with companies that have donated to the program.

“We are going to see more (companies pulling donations),” Smith said. “I actually have meetings even today with some of those corporations that have contributed to the voucher program.”

As for the auditing change, Smith pointed to what he said was already a dramatic lack of transparency when it comes to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. The complete list of corporate donors to the program is not public record, for example.

“The numbers that have been revealed so far — that more than 80 schools have these policies in writing that are hostile to gay and transgender students and families — that’s only what we know. There’s more than that. ... we only know what has either been shared with members of the press on request or what was available online,” he said.

“I don’t know why they are afraid of sunlight."