In response to reports that many of the private schools participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program have anti-LGBTQ policies, some state lawmakers have been actively using social media to attack companies that donate money to fund private school scholarships for low-income students. Two lawmakers are even congratulating companies for pulling scholarship funding from these disadvantaged families because— according to Rep. Anna Eskamani— the private school choice program is a “discriminatory anti-LGBTQ voucher program.”
Her statement is incorrect and her efforts are unintentionally hurting the very children she is claiming to help. Here’s why. First, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program awards scholarships to students regardless of their sexual orientation. Families can use those scholarship dollars to attend a wide array of religious or nonreligious private schools in the state. Calling the program “discriminatory” and “anti-LGBTQ” is disingenuous. The school choice program currently serves over 100,000 disadvantaged students in the state. And 100 percent of those students are from low-income families and about 70 percent of those students are African-American or Hispanic. The average student lives in a household earning just $26,578 each year. Thus, these lawmakers are literally congratulating corporations for taking scholarship funding away from hundreds of low-income and minority students.
Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones, a former public school teacher, understands these implications. “Ripping scholarship funding out from underneath thousands of economically vulnerable students whose only chance at a safe environment and solid education is not the answer,” Rep. Jones said.
Taking away educational options from low-income families does not help anyone. Yes, some schools chosen by families using scholarships in this program are religious and have policies against LGBTQ lifestyles. We do not personally agree with those policies. However, it is their right to religious freedom to do so, and it is the right of families using the scholarships to avoid those schools if they do not agree with their policies.
But possibly the worst way to be critical of the anti-LGBTQ policies is to defund the scholarship program because that has very little effect on schools with the policies while doing a great deal of harm to the disadvantaged kids in need of those scholarships. Defunding the program also means cutting some scholarships that actually go to LGBTQ students. A 2017 analysis of school climates conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that “private non-religious schools were more positive environments for LGBTQ youth than public or religious schools.” Cutting LGBTQ student access to choice scholarships prevents them from finding those more positive environments.
Those advocating for defunding the scholarship program could end up harming the very students they are claiming to help – LGBTQ students like Elijah Robinson, a scholarship recipient, who recently said, “If I would have stayed at my previous school, I honestly would have lost my life.” Elijah needed a different environment and obviously benefits from using the school choice program in Florida. The scholarship program is not “anti-LGBTQ.” Taking scholarships away from LGBTQ students is anti-LGBTQ.
Additionally, critics like Rep. Eskamani and others adamantly referring to the scholarships as “public dollars” are incorrect. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that tax credit scholarships are private dollars because private funding does not become public funding until it has “come into the tax collector’s hands.” Furthermore, the Florida courts most recently ruled that “tax credits offered under the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program involve no public funds.”
Corporations are obviously free to do what they want with their own private dollars. But the attacks on the scholarship program are wrong. One company, Fifth Third Bank, had withdrawn its funding from the scholarship program in response to critics but decided just one week later to resume funding after getting a more complete picture. Others should follow their lead. After all, taking away educational options from hundreds of low-income and minority students is nothing to celebrate.