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After Orlando Sentinel Report, Corporate Tax Scholarship Draws Support, Scrutiny

Florida democrats are pushing for changes in the state’s corporate tax scholarship program laws after an Orlando Sentinel investigation found some religious schools that accept the scholarships discriminate against LBTQ children and their families. Democrats are calling on Republicans to stop those practices, but one powerful Republican says there’s not a problem. Meanwhile, some observers say the Democrats’ plan clashes with the rights of private schools to run their programs as they see fit.

The Sentinel recently reported 14% of schools participating in the program refuse to admit LGBTQ students or could expel them due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, several schools refused to accept students whose parents are gay or hire gay staff.

Current state law requires schools participating in the corporate tax scholarship program to be in good standing with the Department of Education and compliant with the scholarship laws. HB 45, sponsored by Rep. Anna Eskamani (D - Orlando) would add language stating private schools that accept the scholarships may not deny enrollment to a student based on gender, sexual orientation or identity.

Anti-LGBT Florida schools getting school vouchersIn the shadow of a nearly 200-foot cross, Central Florida Christian Academy enrolls students who live by the Bible's commands and abstain from "sexual immorality" - meaning gay children aren't welcome on the state-supported campus in west Orange County.

An identical measure has been proposed in the Senate by Sen. Darryl Rouson (D- St.Petersburg). Neither bill has been heard in a legislative committee.

“We are creating a generation of [kids] who also don’t understand inclusivity. A generation of children who think it's okay to subscribe to these types policies in their student handbook,” Eskamani told reporters in a press conference about the bills. She says her proposal is important because schools can influence a child’s morals.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo-Smith says the private schools with anti-LGBTQ rules are equating gender identity and sexual orientation to bullying.

“The message that is being sent to these students using taxpayer money is that it is worse to be gay or transgender than it is to be a liar, a cheater or a criminal in the school,” he said.

Eskamani’s bill has garnered a great deal of support from her side of the aisle yet it lacks support from Republicans. Sen. Manny Diaz (R-Miami) says the choice should be left to the parents to pick the right school for their child.

“The money goes to the parents. Parents are never going to put a child in a situation that is not beneficial for the child. If it’s not beneficial for the child, they have the ability to move them. The interesting part about all of this is in all these reports is you hear of these alleged policies, but we have not had one single person come forward and actually say ‘we’ve been discriminated against’ or ‘we’ve had an issue at this school or that school’. It’s interesting, it seems to me that there is an agenda behind this,” he said.

The state offers several forms of private school scholarship programs. The Corporate Tax Scholarship is the largest. Business that donate receive state tax credits. Programs like the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for kids with disabilities and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for people with higher incomes are funded directly from state revenues. There are also several scholarship funding organizations.

The Orlando Sentinel’s reporting includes interviews with families who say they’ve been discriminated against, but Diaz says no reports have made it up to the state.

Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank have dropped their association with corporate tax scholarship funding organizations.

In a statement, Step Up for Students, the state’s largest and oldest scholarship funding group, says Wells Fargo has not made a financial donation since 2014. The only current donor for program that has stopped contributing because of the issue is Rosen Hotels & Resort.

"In the 19 year history of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, neither Step Up nor the Florida DOE is aware of any systemic discrimination against scholarship students, including LGBTQ students. We have no evidence of students being denied enrollment or expelled from private schools due to their sexual orientation or gender identity," Step Up For Students spokesman Ron Matus wrote in a statement.

"It’s also important to note that among the students being helped by the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship are LGBTQ students like Elijah Robinson, who was bullied over his sexual identify in public school to the point of attempting suicide. Surveys of LGBTQ students indicate they face higher rates of bullying and harassment in public schools than in private schools, including faith-based private schools. The scholarship program itself is non-discriminatory; all students, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are allowed to access these scholarships," he said.

 

"It is vital that LGBTQ students continue to have options, like education choice scholarships, that allow them and their parents to escape unsafe learning environments and access safe ones. It is also vital that any proposed legislative changes to such programs be considered thoughtfully, to avoid any missteps that could result in fewer scholarship for our most vulnerable students, including LGBTQ students. We continue to believe those unintended consequences can best be avoided if people of good will carefully consider all the evidence and complications."