The secret millions behind Florida religious schools banning gay children

Under Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, the Sunshine State has allowed private religious schools to scoop up taxpayer-funded vouchers with apparently minimal oversight. Io Dodds explains how the program has led to Florida taxpayers subsidising anti-LGBT+ policies

Thursday 01 September 2022 13:05 BST
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Bill Mutz had served on the board of Lakeland Christian School near Tampa, Florida for more than 20 years. As the mayor of Lakeland and a devout believer himself, he had sent all his children to the school, one of whom even featured in a promotional video.

That was until this June, when Mr Mutz read out a city proclamation at a public meeting recognising that month as LGBT+ Pride Month. According to LkldNow, other board members believed this conflicted with the school's own statement of values, which defines all gay sex and all forms of gender transition "immoral and therefore sin", and asked him to resign.

"My responsibility as mayor is to serve all citizens of the city," Mr Mutz told local newspaper The Ledger. "My role on the board has a statement of faith attached... I can do both. I don't find conflict in that."

Mr Mutz's departure is just one example of how Florida's education system has empowered religious conservatives to push back against LGBT+ rights. Earlier this month, another private school called Grace Christian School in Valrico made headlines when it sent an email to parents reminding them that LGBT+ pupils would be required to quit.

"We believe that any form of homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, transgender identity/lifestyle, self-identification, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery and pornography are sinful in the sight of God and the church," said pastor and school head Barry McKeen, according to NBC News. "Students who are found participating in these lifestyles will be asked to leave the school immediately."

Yet this discriminatory policy was subsidised by Florida taxpayers, thanks to the Sunshine State's massive expansion of school vouchers under Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and a solidly GOP state legislature.

By allowing parents to spend their vouchers at private religious institutions, while imposing no requirement that they treat LGBT+ pupils equally, the state has channelled hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to anti-LGBT+ schools.

"It's ironic to call them private schools when the bulk of their students benefit from public money," Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state legislator who has filed a bill to ban the practice, tells The Independent.

"So really, what they are is publicly subsidised discriminatory schools that don't have educational standards, that at the same time are picking and choosing the kids that they want to serve... it's very dangerous and unsettling, and un-American for us to allow this to happen."

'All employees must abstain from gay sex'

Grace Christian School is far from alone. In 2019, a middle school teacher at a Christian school on Florida's "Space Coast", which had received more than $900,000 in public money the previous year, was fired after admitting she was a lesbian.

"All employees must agree to and model our position on human sexuality, which is based on the biblical teaching that asks all Christ-followers to abstain from any sexual activities outside of one-man, one-woman marriage," the school said in a statement.

In 2021, a devout teacher at a Seventh Day Adventist school in central Florida ($1.7m in public money) was fired after revealing he was gay.

An investigation by The Orlando Sentinel in 2020 found 83 private Christian schools that refused to admit LGBT+ students or could expel them if their identity became known, and another 73 that called being gay or transgender a sin.

Altogether, they received more than $129m from the state of Florida to educate nearly 21,000 pupils during the 2018-19 school year. Some schools even banned pupils if their parents were gay.

The story of Grace Christian School triggered immediate condemnation from LGBT+ advocates. "Absolutely shameful," said Eddie Geller, then a Democratic primary candidate for one of Florida's seats in the US House of Representatives. "I will fight like hell to make sure this never happens again."

Josh Bell, executive director of the Florida-based LGBT+ non-profit One Orlando Alliance, told NBC News: "Policies like this are inherently harmful. Students who receive these messages are much more likely to experience depression [and] suicidal ideations, to socially withdraw, to become vulnerable really to all sorts of harmful coping mechanisms."

To Scott Hottenstein, a longtime middle school teacher who is head of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida, Grace's email was not a surprise.

"We've had almost 25 years of Republican rule in Florida," he tells The Independent. "This is the policy that they're following. They are trying to use public education funding as an ATM machine. They're monetising our children, and they don't care if schools are discriminatory while they're taking money out of the system."

Florida Republicans have ploughed money into school vouchers

Launched by then-governor Jeb Bush in 1999, Florida's school voucher programme was the first of its kind in the country, and has since been emulated by numerous other states.

At first, Florida's system was more limited, with various state-backed "scholarships" aimed at specific groups such as students with disabilities or victims of bullying. The money came from corporate donors, who got a tax break in return.

In 2019, though, Mr DeSantis signed a law expanding the system by around $200m, making tens of thousands more Floridians eligible for vouchers paid for directly by the state. “We really believe that empowering the parents to be able to have the widest variety of educational choices for their kids is a recipe for success,” he said at the time.

In 2021, Florida Republicans further widened eligibility and increased the amount of money schools receive for each pupil, consolidating scholarships previously intended for students with disabilities into one broader programme.

The result is that Florida's voucher programme is now the fifth largest school district in the state, according to one Tallahassee school district superintendent, reportedly enrolling 165,000 students at a cost to the taxpayer of $1.5bn.

Step Up For Students, a non-profit that administers many of Florida's vouchers, says in its financial reports that it has disbursed about $3.2bn in vouchers since 2016, the vast majority of which came from tax credits.

According to Suzanne Eckes, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies school voucher programmes across the US, these schools bypass many anti-discrimination laws and rules that both public schools and charter schools must follow.

As in other states, Florida's voucher schools are required to follow federal laws that forbid discrimination based on race or national origin, but Mr DeSantis's government has explicitly told schools not to follow new rules proposed by Joe Biden to protect LGBT+ students.

Governor DeSantis puts on his 'armour of God'

Advocates say that vouchers allow parents to escape failing public schools and have agency over their children's education, extending the principle of school choice beyond the small number of parents rich enough to pay for private tuition.

Some go further, arguing that requiring religious schools to admit LGBT+ students violates their freedom of religion.

“Students don’t need to go to that school if they feel that is going to be a problem for their families and their lifestyles,” the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools told The Orlando Sentinel in 2020.

Wesley Scott, executive director of the National Alliance of Christian Schools, said that most religious schools would prefer to stop taking vouchers than to change their LGBT+ policies. "They are operating within their philosophy and their beliefs," he said.

Step Up For Students has also claimed that LGBT+ students have used vouchers to escape bullying in public schools, and said in 2020 that it knows of no voucher students who had been rejected from a private school because of their sexual or gender identity.

A Republican legislator in 2020 dodged questions about the issue, saying his priority was to make sure students "who now finally have a great opportunity" thanks to vouchers don't get "ripped from those schools".

Mr DeSantis himself, who in February told conservative activists that they must "put on that full armour of God to stand firm against the left's schemes", has been unapologetic.

"If the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education," he declared in 2019. "In Florida, public education is going to have a meaning that is directed by the parents, where the parents are the drivers because they know what’s best for their kids."

That speech was given at a Christian school whose student application form warned that it might reject or expel students if there was a "homosexual [or] transgender orientation" within their home. Although the school later claimed that this policy was no longer in force, the form is still available on the school's website, and the school's "non-discrimination statement" omits gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Step Up For Students and the Florida Association of Christian Schools did not respond to requests for comment.

'A whole shadow system of garbage'

It's unclear exactly how much money is going to discriminatory schools. Such data appears to be unavailable from official sources, and Step Up did not respond to The Independent's request for it.

More general data released by Step Up shows that there were 73,338 voucher students in the 2020-21 school year, of whom 82 per cent are attending religious schools. Not all such schools are discriminatory, and Ms Eskamani says there are many in Florida whose mission statements protect LGBT+ pupils.

Data from the Florida Department of Education also shows that 64 per cent of religious schools that take vouchers in the state do not have any independent accreditation.

As for Grace Christian School, it received $630,054 in voucher money in the 2018/19 academic year alone. Calvary City Christian Academy, the school where Mr DeSantis spoke, received nearly $1.9m.

The problems also go beyond LGBT students, according to Billy Townsend, a former newspaper editor and school board member in one of Florida's biggest school districts who now writes an acerbic newsletter about the state's voucher system.

"As despicable as the LGBT discrimination is, the voucher story is far, far bigger and worse than that," he tells The Independent. "There's a reason these schools aren't accredited. There's a reason there's no data. There's a reason there's a 61 per cent two-year drop-out rate. These schools are garbage, and if they're discriminating against you [by not letting you in], you're lucky."

The 61 per cent figure refer to a study by the Urban Institute, which found that the majority of students on Florida's tax-credit-funded voucher programme quit within two years. Though the researchers cautioned that there are many reasons why this might happen (such as households becoming wealthier and thus ineligible), Mr Townsend says it suggests the schools are no good.

The research also found that 57 per cent of voucher students enrolled in college, compared to 51 per cent of similar public school students. But another study by Florida State University found no difference in progress, as well as evidence that many schools with large numbers of voucher students actually had worse outcomes.

Even in 2017, before Mr DeSantis expanded Florida's vouchers, a Sentinel investigation found taxpayer-funded private schools employing teachers with no certification or university degrees, hiring teachers who had been fired for having porn on school computers, failing to pay rent, and teaching that dinosaurs and humans lived together or that Christian slaves were better off than free heathens.

In many cases the state government appeared to have turned a blind eye to these problems, and in one case officials reportedly approved a new Christian private school run by a man who was under investigation for sexually abusing a 15-year-old student at his last one.

At least 19 schools had submitted misleading fire and health safety documents, sometimes forging inspectors' names, and yet eight continued to receive voucher money.

"Some of these voucher schools, you sit in a strip mall storefront and you have someone with a high school degree who gives you a workbook to do," says Mr Hottenstein.

Mr Townsend has documented numerous examples of voucher schools with a handful of pupils and shoddy facilities, describing some as "like going to school in a dilapidated 7/11".

Many such schools only took Black students, leading Mr Townsend to argue that Florida's voucher system has pushed students of colour into substandard "scam" schools in what he calls "Jeb Crow". "It's a whole shadow school system of garbage," he says.

How other states could follow Florida's lead

Despite all this, Florida's approach to anti-LGBT+ discrimination may spread across America following a fateful Supreme Court decision in June.

In the case of Carson v Makin, six conservative judges, three of whom were appointed by Donald Trump, ruled that the state of Maine had violated freedom of religion by limiting its voucher-like tuition subsidies to "non-sectarian" schools.

The two religious schools at the heart of the case both had rules against enrolling LGBT+ students, and yet the court held that Maine could not exclude them from taxpayer funding.

"Florida is absolutely a reflection of trends around the country," says Ms Eskamani. " Florida is definitely not the only state that that continues to expand, with no accountability, the voucher system. What is unique to Florida is the is the expansion of homophobia and transphobia."

She cites the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, which forbids teaching students about sexual orientation or gender identity, saying that "out-loud anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy" that would have been considered unacceptable "even five years ago" was becoming normal.

"I am concerned that other states are going to see some [schools] get away with it without consequences, and then they'll they'll do the same," she adds.

Ms Eckes says the Supreme Court's ruling may have the perverse effect of forcing blue states to drop their voucher programmes completely, or persuading them not to create one. The decision did not block states from making specific laws or rules that withhold taxpayer money from anti-LGBT+ schools, and some states are pursuing that option.

But Ms Eckes argues that these laws too may attract legal challenges, and could yet be struck down by the currently highly conservative Supreme Court.

"That's a radical idea – that religious rights, religious beliefs, should trump secular laws," she says. "But we seem to be moving in that direction."

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