Why does voucher money go to schools banning gay students? | Editorial

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times The Florida House in session in May.
SCOTT KEELER | Times The Florida House in session in May.
Published Jul. 4, 2019

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators promote spending millions in tax dollars on tuition vouchers at unregulated private schools as providing opportunities for more choices for students. What they don't mention is some of those private schools have policies that say they will not accept gay students and will expel any they discover who are enrolled. Florida should not be effectively sanctioning such discrimination, and companies that have been supporting the existing voucher program should think twice about it.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has filed legislation for the 2020 session that would ban private schools that discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity from participating in the voucher program. State civil rights law broadly prohibits discrimination by race, religion, gender and age. But Florida does not include in that law similar protections for LGBTQ people, which should be the ultimate goal. In the meantime, private religious schools should not be receiving voucher money if they have written policies that ban gay students.

The Orlando Sentinel recently named some religious schools that are on the state-approved list to receive voucher money that have those written policies. It cited Calvary City Christian Academy in Orlando, which DeSantis visited earlier this year. (The school says it admits LGBTQ students and has changed its written policy since the Sentinel reported it.) Why are these schools receiving money from a state-approved voucher program that depends on money contributed by corporations in lieu of state taxes — money that could go to public education open to all students?

Of course there are constitutional protections for religion. And there are many churches and religious schools that are welcoming to LGBTQ people of all ages. But the state should not be subsidizing discrimination either through the current voucher program or the one that DeSantis signed into law and will directly steer more than $100 million in public money in 2019-20 to vouchers at private schools.

At least some companies that have been contributing to the voucher program understandably are having second thoughts. Rosen Hotels and Resorts, which has steered more than $1 million in tax credits to the program, announced it is pulling out following the reporting by Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell. Other companies are also reconsidering their support in contrast to DeSantis, whose office has deflected questions.

Predictably, the nonprofit Step Up For Students that administers most of the vouchers in Florida has responded by attacking the messenger. Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill told the Sentinel the organization opposes discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ students. But in a follow-up column published by the Sentinel he whined that the columnist was costing the program money, contended the organization has identified 38 schools with discriminatory polices out of more 1,800 reviewed, and highlighted an Ohio charter school created specifically for LGBTQ students. Separate but equal was not acceptable in dealing with school segregation by race, and it is not acceptable now regarding sexual orientation.

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Rouson has taken the right step by filing legislation that would at least ban those schools that discriminate from receiving voucher money. Let's see if Republicans have the nerve to bring it up for a vote.

This editorial has been updated to reflect the following correction: Rosen Hotels and Resorts has steered more than $1 million in tax credits to the program. An earlier version cited an incorrect number. Also, Calvary City Christian Academy says it admits LGBTQ students and has changed its written policy since the Sentinel reported it.