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Scholarship discrimination should be ‘obliterated,’ Florida Board of Education member says

Another board member calls the criticism of some private schools’ policies regarding LGBTQ youth misguided by ‘journalistic activism.’
Florida Board of Education member Michael Olenick speaks during a July 17, 2019, board meeting in Polk County. [The Florida Channel]

Florida’s heated debate over whether schools that expel LGBTQ students should have access to tax credit scholarship funds reared its head in this week’s State Board of Education meeting.

And on the reliably pro-school choice board, one member stepped up to denounce any hint of mistreatment of children and families in the program he routinely supports.

Board member Michael Olenick, a former education department general counsel, used the occasion of renewing two scholarship funding organizations to raise his concerns about media reports of discrimination by some of the schools that accept the tax credit scholarships.

“There is no place in Florida for any discrimination,” Olenick said. “It should be obliterated.”

He stressed that he supports the goal of providing financial assistance to allow low-income children more school opportunities.

“There must be some balance of giving religious freedom while not having any kind of harassment or discrimination,” he said, asking Commissioner Richard Corcoran for some input.

Corcoran did not respond.

But board member Ben Gibson, who served as a lawyer to the DeSantis transition team, did. He took up the passionate defense of the scholarship program, which frequently has gone hand in hand with criticism of the Orlando Sentinel reporting that sparked the debate.

Gibson thanked the scholarship funding organization representatives for their hard work, particularly as they and the schools have been “targeted” for their policies regarding LGBTQ youth.

He said low-income, minority and disabled students benefit most from the programs, and called the allegations of discrimination “baseless,” made by “people who simply don’t like the policy of choice."

”I’m a big proponent of choice. I’m a big proponent of parents should be making the decisions," Gibson said.

He added that schools should not be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. (The counter argument has been that students should not be discriminated against by schools enforcing their religion.)

Newly appointed board member Ryan Petty agreed with Gibson. He said the push against scholarship schools and donors was “journalistic activism” without a thought to the families that gain from the scholarships.

Discrimination is not appropriate, Petty said, but the state “can’t tell religious organizations what to teach.”

The board took no official position on the issue. It approved the renewals of both AAA and Step Up for Students.

The action took place on the same day that state Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith withdrew amendments to the House education budget that included language to stop schools with discriminatory policies from participating in the scholarship program.

The proposals had no chance of passing. But they could have forced a heated floor debate, something the minority party often attempts to bring attention to issues it favors.

Eskamani explained that the progressive Democrats are trying to work with conservative Republicans to find a middle ground. That might work better if they don’t keep airing their complaints publicly.

“Before we withdrew our amendments, we were told by the Speaker (José Oliva) that our concerns were being taken seriously, so we pulled the amendments on good faith,” Eskamani said. “We are actively working to get a meeting with Commissioner Corcoran.”

If nothing happens, the amendments always could resurface on other bills.

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