Why Taxpayer Money is (Still) Funding Anti-Gay Private Schools

This week, Salon writer Katie McDonough published a piece about voucher systems that allow private schools with anti-LGBT policies to receive taxpayer funding, adding to the ongoing conversation about why we’re letting this stuff happen over and over again.

The story has been a hot topic for the last few weeks in light of a scandal at North Carolina’s Myrtle Grove Christian School, which was eligible for a state taxpayer-funded voucher program, even though a “Biblical morality policy” determined that no LGBT students or parents were permitted. After substantial public outcry, the school announced that it would not accept any state funding due to controversy over the anti-gay policy — it would rather continue to discriminate with private money than take government money and have to accept everybody — though it appears to remain eligible for vouchers.

As McDonough says, it’s an infuriating story, but not a new one. And we’ve gotten too accustomed to blowing it off:

Every few weeks or so, a news story appears about an LGBT teacher who was fired by a religious school because of his or her sexuality, or a private school is exposed for having an explicit policy of rejecting LGBT students and families. Progressive news sites (like this one) circulate these stories with considerable and justified outrage, but all too often the story stops there — with strongly registered disappointment that private schools are legally empowered to discriminate against people because of who they are. Time passes, these cases recede into the white noise of the news cycle; rinse, repeat.

She has a point, and other outlets have picked up on it, too. In October, Rolling Stone wrote about the harsh anti-LGBT policies at Christian schools across the country, where students must pledge not to participate in any “homosexual activity” at the risk of expulsion. But many of these schools also qualify for state-funded voucher programs, meant to provide tuition funding for children from low-income families. Here’s an accurate (if wordy) summary from their piece:

Georgia, along with 11 other states (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, Rhode Island, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, New Hampshire, Louisiana and, most recently, Alabama), has adopted laws — sometimes referred to as “neovouchers” — to grant dollar-for-dollar tax credits to people who donate money to provide children with scholarships to private schools. In theory, such a plan has the potential to help a lot of students, but in practice, especially in deeply religious places like Georgia, it has also meant that millions of dollars have been redirected from public funds to privately run Student Scholarship Organizations, which can then funnel the money to schools with strict anti-gay policies. Because the money goes straight to the SSO and never actually enters the public coffers, it’s free and clear of being considered a “public fund” — allowing church and state to technically be kept separate. All of which may sound fishy, but consider this: It’s fully legal because the laws make it so. And, as the school-choice movement gains ground, it’s certain that other states will soon pass similar legislation.

The heart of the matter comes through in this paragraph of the Slate piece, where McDonough makes the point outright that we don’t actually know what goes on in every school that receives public funding, which makes it even more difficult to accurately track misuse of state funds.

But the problem with the “name and shame” process of demanding transparency and accountability after an egregious incident of discrimination is publicly exposed is that not all institutions make these policies quite so explicit. Many similar stories just fall through the cracks, or take place quietly through hiring and enrollment practices. As a result, schools’ anti-LGBT biases, whether stated directly in charters or practiced by officials through employment and admissions, can continue unchecked.

Many of the states with programs that funnel taxpayer money from public to private schools have Republican-led legislatures. McDonough spoke with Wisconsin state Rep. Christine Sinicki, who says many of her fellow lawmakers are Tea Partiers who won’t budge from their anti-LGBT views.

“I have been fighting this for 15 years, drafting legislation calling for these schools to come under open records and open reading policies, but to this day we have not been able to get anything passed on this,” she told Salon. “We have a real hard time even tracking what’s going on in these schools.”

Which is precisely why it’s so crucial to ensure that religious schools receiving public subsidies comply with the same anti-discrimination laws that govern public schools. And why connecting the issues of America’s troubling trend of privatization in education and widespread discrimination against LGBT kids and adults is so important as well.

McDonough’s article is one of a growing number exploring this issue, which is bound to affect even more than just LGBT students in the South. For now, the only answer is to dig more deeply into questionable policies and do our best to hold schools accountable for their discriminatory actions, but that’s a temporary fix until we see a serious revamping of how these voucher programs work — ideally, in a way that doesn’t reward religious schools for bigoted policies.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.