In response to the Orlando Sentinel’s investigative reporting that many private schools participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program have “anti-LGBTQ” policies, some lawmakers have been actively using social media to attack companies that donate money to fund private school scholarships for low-income students in the state. Two lawmakers are even congratulating companies for pulling scholarship funding from these disadvantaged families because, according to State 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. 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. Of those students, 100% are from low-income families, and about 70% 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 State 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,” 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 gay and transgender 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 those anti-gay and transgender policies is to defund the scholarship program. That has very little effect on schools with the policies while doing a great deal of harm to the disadvantaged students in need of those scholarships.
Defunding the program also means fewer scholarships for gay and transgender 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 gay and transgender student access to choice scholarships prevents them from finding a more positive environment. Those advocating for defunding the scholarship program will arguably harm the very students they are claiming to help — students such as Elijah Robinson, who recently said, “If I would have stayed at my previous school, I honestly would have lost my life.” Elijah obviously benefits from using the school choice program in Florida.
Critics like Eskamani and some journalists also adamantly refer to the scholarships as “public dollars.” That’s not true either. 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 misinformation and attacks on the scholarship program should stop. 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 its lead.
After all, taking away educational options from hundreds of low-income and minority students is nothing to celebrate.
Corey DeAngelis (@DeAngelisCorey) is director of school choice at Reason Foundation and an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute. Adrian Moore (@reasonpolicy) is vice president of policy at Reason Foundation.