Can this lawmaker broker the peace in Florida’s anti-LGBTQ school voucher fight?

As the temperature of the debate continues to rise, it’s deepened fissures based on politics and race.
Rep. Shevrin Jones, -D, West Park, shakes hands with Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee, last year.
Rep. Shevrin Jones, -D, West Park, shakes hands with Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee, last year. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 6, 2020|Updated Feb. 6, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — The evolving debate over anti-LGBTQ policies in private voucher schools is now framed as an unavoidable dilemma for Florida.

Either allow these policies that discriminate against LGBTQ students and their families, or take vouchers away from low-income, mostly black and Hispanic families who are already attending private schools with these funds.

That binary framing has twisted the issue into one where two minority groups are at odds, with both sides lobbing accusations that the other group is harming underrepresented students by playing politics. As the debate’s rhetoric continues to overheat — both in the Capitol and on Twitter — it’s exposed a clear schism fraught with politics, identity and race.

Enter: the state’s first and only out gay black state lawmaker.

Democrat Rep. Shevrin Jones, a former Broward public school teacher who also attends a church that accepts voucher students, says he’s decided that his role in this increasingly bitter fight is to try to broker a peace.

“Someone has to be there to be the moderator, hopefully to bring both sides together and bring what’s best for kids,” Jones said. “We need to make sure these kids are, 1) not being discriminated against and 2) that children are not falling through the cracks.”

This debate began after the Orlando Sentinel found policies in more than 80 schools, laid out in student handbooks and other documents, barring gay or transgender students from attending private schools taking state-supported vouchers. In response to the investigation, several companies have since announced they were pulling their contributions to the program, which is reliant on corporations designating their taxes to go to vouchers rather than the state coffers.

Some of the companies that pulled their contributions have said that they would recommit to the program if the school policies were changed.

According to the Florida House’s budget chair, Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, the estimated loss to the program is estimated to be around $10 million, which he added was a “relatively small amount” compared to the size of the program.

Still, that represents hundreds of vouchers. The loss in funds sparked a backlash this week among program supporters. They contended in a rally at the Capitol that two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith, were intentionally trying to sabotage the voucher program when they called out donor companies on Twitter, asking them to pull their donations. Guillermo Smith is gay.

“Nothing is perfect in our society, I’m never going to say that. But the tax credit scholarship is providing a legitimate opportunity for poor kids in our state to get into another academic environment,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, a black lawmaker who’s a staunch advocate for school vouchers and similar policies. “That is being tossed to the wind because of politics. Frankly, politics at its worst.”

Donalds also said that if the loss of donations causes a significant hole in the program, he will advocate for an increase to a different voucher, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which is funded directly by the state, in order provide students with a way to continue at private schools.

“This is Amendment 4, 2.0,” said Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton, D-St. Petersburg, who is also black and has focused much of his legislative career on how poor kids without access to a good education will end up in the criminal justice system. “I’m here to stand for ... the kids here to make sure everyone gets the same opportunities.”

But Jones said despite how bitter the debate has become, both sides are advocating in good faith. There just needs to be a pause to “let level heads reason.”

He attended a meeting for Thursday afternoon between Smith, Eskamani and Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up for Students, to see if the nonprofit will commit to having its participating private schools change their policies.

While Jones has long been known for having friends on both sides of the aisle, his position as a peacemaker marks a unique crossroads in both his and the Florida Legislature's story.

Although he’s said he’s known since kindergarten that he was gay, he was not publicly out until the summer of 2018. Facing a competitive race for the state Senate, this fall will be his first election since he went public with his sexuality.

The fact that he's out has only "enhanced" his fight, he said.

“Me coming out was a weight off of my shoulders (because) it was important for me to be honest with myself,” Jones said. “My hope is with me being a gay black man ... my goal is to bring everyone to the table because we can have Twitter fights all day but that solves nothing.”

Jones is also the son of a pastor, and attends a church that has a private school which accepts vouchers. And his nephew attends school via a voucher for children with disabilities. Although he’s said programs like vouchers shouldn’t be funded at the expense of public schools, he says there is also room for parents to be able to move their kids to private school environments if that’s what is best for them, and that “both conversations can happen at the same time.”

He was not in favor of having more companies pull their donations to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship vouchers, a position that has already brought sharp disapproval from public education advocates on Twitter.

Jones, as well as Eskamani and Smith, have all agreed that this controversy is an example of why Florida’s voucher programs need more oversight in general. Jones pointed to the instance of a young, black boy who was attending private school using a voucher being told that he could not start first grade unless he first cut off his dreadlocks.

Still, if there is going to be any agreement for schools to repeal these policies, there is a long way to go. Eskamani proposed a bill that would prohibit any private schools receiving public vouchers to discriminate against any student — what she and Smith have said is an easy fix.

But not only has it not been heard, the committee where it's assigned just announced it will likely not hold any more meetings.

“I do not believe there is an impetus here to tell private schools what to do,” said the chair of that committee, Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto.

Republicans have said it’s unconstitutional because it violates schools’ religious freedom, something Eskamani disputes according to legal opinions she’s received from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Eskamani’s bill would only apply to private schools accepting the state-supported vouchers.

This issue is a reminder of how vouchers divide both Democrats and black lawmakers. Rep. Bruce Antone, the chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, said they will not be taking an official vote on the controversy because it would get too “ugly.”

And some lawmakers view this issue as an either-or decision. Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, attended this week’s voucher rally.

“The conversation was not about gay, not about straight. That agenda cannot hijack the education of black children,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about gay issues. I want to talk about educating black kids.”

When asked his position on the anti-LGBTQ policies at some private schools, Jacquet said he had not been closely following the issue and he doesn't watch "fake news."

Smith, the Orlando Democrat, said despite the fact that Eskamani’s bill is still not moving, there is still a month left of the legislative session where something can be accomplished. He said their doors have “always been open,” and this problem could be solved either with a bill or by a policy change by the Department of Education or Step Up.

"Our focus on fixing this issue is very narrow: we are wanting to establish a non-discrimination policy that prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender students in admissions and enrollment. That is very achievable," he said. "People are coming to the table and that's good."

Smith added that there is "no question that many students from all different backgrounds have benefited" from the voucher program, and that is something he wants to see continue.

“People act like religious freedom and treating LGBTQ students with dignity and respect are mutually exclusive concepts,” he said. “They’re not.”