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William March: Anti-gay policies vex Florida's school voucher program

News reports that private schools receiving state-subsidized tuition vouchers discriminate against gay students has roiled the program, alienating some donors, including in the Tampa area.

At least a handful of local schools eligible for the vouchers, known as Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, say on their web sites that they will not admit, or would expel, gay students or children of same-sex couples.

Responding to questions from the Times, a few Tampa-area companies that donate to the program said they were concerned about discrimination.

But state officials and officials of the largest non-profit corporation that helps run the program say they aren't discriminating — they simply provide the money for tuition subsidies to low-income families, who are free to use it where they wish.

In an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel this week, Doug Tuthill, president of non-profit Step Up for Students, says the program has provided thousands of disadvantaged students education opportunities they couldn't otherwise afford.

He said the program aids any family that meets the income guidelines, "no matter their race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity." Those families can then use the money at any of 1,800 participating private schools that will admit the student.

Tuthill said the corporation has found 38 of those schools that "express disapproval of homosexuality in their codes of conduct."

He also said in his 11 years as Step Up president, "I've never seen evidence of a single LGBTQ+ scholarship student being treated badly by a scholarship school. And I've looked."

The state Constitution prohibits spending state money on religious endeavors including schools, so the program uses corporate income tax credits as a work-around. Corporations who donate to Step Up or a similar organization get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit; Step Up then distributes the money as scholarships, or vouchers.

This spring, 100,512 students participated with an average $6,266 scholarship, according to the EdChoice advocacy group.

Critics say that diverted money could otherwise go to cash-starved public schools.

But this year, the state Legislature passed legislation to expand the program, directly appropriating state money. A court challenge is expected.

The Times checked voucher-eligible private schools listed by Step Up for two Tampa ZIP codes and found that at least four publicly say they ban gay students or families.

The Citrus Park Christian School handbook, for example, prescribes expulsion for "any deviant sexual behavior" including "homosexuality, incest, bisexuality, bestiality, lesbianism, or transgenderism," or "Acts of identifying statements of sexual impurity or promiscuity."

Providence Christian School in Riverview says it will prohibit students based on "the student/family's personal conduct (lifestyle choices) … including, but not limited to sexual orientation, same-sex marriage and unmarried cohabitation."

In Clearwater, Calvary Christian High says it "reserves the right" to expel or refuse to admit a student for "living in, condoning, or supporting … homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity."

At least one large Step Up donor, Orlando-based Rosen Hotels & Resorts, ended its contributions after learning of the discrimination.

The Times contacted about a dozen local corporations or local headquarters of companies that contribute to Step Up to ask their view. Most didn't respond, including Cigar City Brewing, Circle K, Badcock Home Furniture and several insurance companies.

Among those that did:

AAA Auto Club said it values and promotes diversity and, "We are reviewing this matter because it is imperative that our charitable contributions align with our corporate values."

Allegiant Air said it is "dismayed" to learn of the anti-gay discrimination, and that it hasn't contributed since 2017 and doesn't plan to again.

Duke Energy said Step Up has assured them it doesn't discriminate, and Duke "encourages the Florida Department of Education to review the policies of the program to ensure participating schools do not discriminate."

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has introduced legislation to prohibit anti-gay discrimination in the program. Similar legislation has failed.

Driskell could get easy re-elect

It's too early to judge, but so far there are no signs of a serious 2020 Republican challenger to freshman state House member Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa — a surprise in what was once the county's top House swing district.

Some local GOP insiders say there may not be one, because the New Tampa-university area district has transitioned to a Democratic leaner.

State Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, said he probably would know of a potential challenger and doesn't.

Former Rep. Shawn Harrison, unseated by Driskell in 2018, said he's heard nothing, and that "D63 is no longer a swing district."

Commissioner Ken Hagan, formerly of New Tampa, said the area has transitioned since 2002 from Republican to Democratic, and he wouldn't be surprised if no serious GOP challenger emerges.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who as the next House speaker is taking over as the top GOP candidate recruiter, didn't return calls for comment.

Driskell said it's too soon to speculate, and, "I can't imagine they wouldn't challenge this seat in a presidential year." But she noted New Tampa has become more diverse than a decade ago.

The district has changed partisan hands three times since it got its current Hillsborough-only configuration in 2012.

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