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As Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Reignites School Choice Debate, Its Supporters Plan Tuesday Rally

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Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program has come under fire after an Orlando Sentinel investigation reported some participating private schools have exclusionary policies toward LGBTQ students. The controversy has revived the school choice debate, and a rally is planned for the Capitol Tuesday.

The scholarship program gives tax breaks to corporations that donate money, which is then given by the state to parents to take their kids to private schools. But the Orlando newspaper found a percentage of private schools, mostly religious, had language in their policies that discriminates against LGBTQ students.  

Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando has been among those leading the charge in calling for corporations to stop donating to the scholarship program.

“That was actually a follow up to a series they did in August of 2019, highlighting discriminatory practices in private schools who benefit from Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is a publicly-based funding that diverts what corporations would pay in taxes into a tax credit, where they directly divert these funds toward this private school system,” Eskamani told WFSU Monday.

Eskamani describes the Sentinel report as having found a slew of private schools that are engaged in discriminatory behavior:

“Doing in-depth research on handbooks of these schools, finding over 100 schools that had discriminatory practices, some quite explicit, specific toward same-sex dynamics, whether it was with a child or with their family, and others that also included anti-trans youth policies,” she said.

Eskamani spoke about some of the companies that have since pulled their donations to the scholarship program.

“Since those new reports came out, we’ve seen corporations make the decision to end their participation in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, based on their values,” Eskamani said. “These are corporations who participate in Pride events across the state, they have inclusivity policies within the organization. These companies value diversity and inclusion, they see it as not just an altruistic vision for the future, but they see it as the reality today and as an economic driver.”

At the heart of the re-ignited debate concerning the Tax Credit Scholarship program is whether or not the money ever becomes “public.” A state appellate court in 2016 upheld a prior ruling that the program didn’t violate the state constitution. Statewide teachers Union the Florida Education Association filed the suit, claiming the program diverted public funds to go to religious institutions.  The First District Court of Appeal’s opinion stated the FEA had no standing to claim that.

Still, Eskamani feels there’s legal precedent that’s in favor of her argument.  

“Federal courts across the country have recognized that governments may impose conditions on those who receive federal funds or tax benefits, including those which limit the recipients’ speech, along with restrictions to bar discrimination,” Eskamani said. “So, there is case law out there that at the very least says there are discriminatory practices that are not allowed if you’re benefitting from a tax credit program, or public funding.”

The Orlando Representative filed a bill prior to the start of session which would make admission to a participating private school couldn’t be barred based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but it was never scheduled for a hearing.

Meanwhile, supporters of the scholarship program are pushing back, saying the pressure put on corporations to stop their donations hurts all recipients of the scholarships.

Anna Day is a teacher as a private school that participates in the Tax Credit Scholarship program. She also has two children who are recipients of the scholarships.

“I do have two boys that currently receive Step Up for Students – they are in seventh and eighth grade, respectively. And they have excelled in private school,” Day told WFSU. “Honestly, I believe that it is imperative to have the Income Tax Credit Scholarship, because there are many parents who are in need, and they just can’t afford to send their child to private school – and they just don’t do well in public school for one reason or another.”

Day says factors like class size in public schools can jeopardize one-on-one instruction time that some students need to optimize learning:

“Private school, the classrooms are smaller. Therefore, when they need the extra help they have the opportunity, in comparison to when they were at public schools, it was a little bit more strenuous.”

Day teaches at Piney Grove Boys Academy in Lauderdale Lakes. She says her school is inclusive of all students, and feels criticisms of the scholarship program lumps in all schools as being discriminatory. She doesn’t support any kind of discrimination, but thinks threatening the program’s funding harms students.

“I believe that while maybe there are some that have made misguided choices, do they deserve to be reprimanded, yes,” Day said of the schools who are being accused of discrimination. “The thing is, withholding the funding, the only person you’re hurting is the kids. And they didn’t do anything to deserve that.”

Day is going to make the trip up to Tallahassee for a rally in support of the scholarship program.

“I am going to be there along with fellow colleagues, classmates, from several different school actually,” the mom and educator said.

That rally is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Capitol. There is a press conference scheduled at the same time, led by the Florida African American Ministers Alliance, to "denounce attacks" on the scholarship program.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.