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Is that private school denying access to LGBTQ students?

If so, some Florida lawmakers want to deny it access to state cash.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Representative Anna Eskamani prepares for session in her office at the Florida State Capitol on April 3, 2019 in Tallahassee, Florida.
Published Aug. 14
Updated Aug. 14

To continue receiving public money from Florida’s large and growing scholarship and voucher programs, private schools would have to disavow any policies barring gay, lesbian and transgender students and children with disabilities from enrolling, under a proposal filed by two Democratic state lawmakers.

Two bills in the Legislature (SB 56 / HB 45) would add disability, sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of criteria a private school seeking voucher funding may not use in determining enrollment.

The proposals land amid reports that some private schools receiving state dollars had rules saying they reserved the right to deny admission to certain students.

The Orlando school where Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his call to create a new voucher program, for instance, had posted online a “lifestyle policy” that listed “homosexual and transgender orientation” as opposed to the biblical lifestyle it teaches, saying that could be grounds for refusing a child. The Orlando Sentinel reported that the school has since removed that policy.

As another example, a Tampa school stated on its website that it reserved the right to decline a student whose “special educational, behavioral or physical needs reach beyond the scope of our ability to meet.”

Florida seems intent on spending money to expand vouchers, observed bill sponsor Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who finds the program unconstitutional.

“If we are going to do this, go down that path, then certainly public dollars should not be going to schools that discriminate,” Rouson said. “Children deserve a safe, non-discriminatory educational environment so they can grow to be the best they can be.”

RELATED: Gov. Ron DeSantis unveils plan to expand state money for private school tuition

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who filed an identical measure a week after Rouson, called any schools’ efforts to reject students based on their orientation or disability status “un-American.” They shouldn’t be operating in that manner using private money, she said, but it’s worse if the state provides funding and becomes complicit.

“We shouldn’t be funding that type of institution,” Eskamani said.

She suggested that her Republican colleagues who have pushed to grow the voucher program should back the bill, if for no other reason than to remove practices that might give a court pause when taking up the seemingly inevitable next legal challenge to the expansion that DeSantis signed into law this year.

“I’m very hopeful that this will not be a partisan issue,” she said.

RELATED: Vouchers ‘fertile ground’ for Florida education lawyers, noted attorney says

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, chairs the PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee that Eskamani expects to take up her proposal.

A staunch proponent of vouchers and school choice, Donalds said the chances for the bill are “fair.”

“Obviously, discrimination is something that nobody should support,” he said.

At the same time, though, many of the participating private schools are religion-based, Donalds noted, and they have specific principles and values that parents can choose among. In some cases, the learning environment might not be right for everyone, he said, but Florida has plenty of options available.

He also raised the question of whether gender identity is a category to be separated out, noting many governments in Florida and elsewhere do not recognize it.

Donalds would not predict the concept’s fate before it goes through the legislative process, saying only, “It’s something that we’re definitely going to look at.”

Soon after the bill was published, groups such as the Florida Education Association — with long ties to the Democratic Party — offered their support.

“The Florida Education Association has long said that private schools that take taxpayer money should be held accountable on any number of issues — discrimination, teacher certification, student achievement — just as public schools are held accountable,” union president Fedrick Ingram said via email. "The discrimination issue is particularly egregious. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund schools that can turn away children with disabilities, or can reject students on the basis of gender, gender identity and orientation, religion or ethnicity.”

More conservative groups have been less forthcoming, with representatives saying they are looking at the specifics more closely.

Representatives from Step Up For Students, the state’s largest scholarship funding organization, said they had been working with the few schools that appeared to have concerning policies.

“As far as we know, there is no evidence of any LGBTQ scholarship student ever being treated inappropriately at any school serving scholarship students. After exhaustive research we have found less than 5 percent of participating schools had this policy, and over half of these schools have already agreed to change it,” Step Up president Doug Tuthill said via email.

“Regarding students with disabilities, the bill would require participating schools to accept students with all disabilities — something not even required of individual district schools. We trust lawmakers will proceed thoughtfully, given the stakes for thousands of the state’s most disadvantaged students.”

Eskamani expressed hope that Step Up donors, which include large corporations such as Geico and Duke Energy, would add their voices to those opposing any discrimination in the voucher program. Contributors get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for the money they give to the $1 billion program, which has grown beyond 100,000 students and now gets state taxpayer funding, as well.

Eskamani noted many participate in Pride parades and have inclusive employee policies of their own, and perhaps they might call on the state to insist on the same for private schools.

“That would be powerful,” she said. “The corporations carry weight. When these groups make a statement, many of our colleagues do listen more.”

Rouson gave the bill a good chance of passing.

“I always remain optimistic when I file any legislation that is based upon good policy,” he said. “It’s about the children’s safety in a learning environment.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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