This weekend, the New York Times uncovered a popular, if ethically questionable, tax credit program gaining traction in Georgia. The program transforms state money into scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools — including many heavily religious schools where strict policies keep out LGBT students.
The program supposedly seeks to limit conflicts of church and state because the scholarship money is “collected and distributed” by nonprofit organizations rather than being directly funneled from the state to the schools.
The Southern Education Foundation counts that at least 115 religious schools in Georgia have “severe antigay policies,” with the actual number likely being much higher; public information about the scholarship program is limited by law, and oversight is minimal.
Steve Suitts, the vice president of the foundation and the author of the report, said that as many as a third of the schools in the scholarship program have strict antigay policies or adhere to a religious philosophy that holds homosexuality as immoral or a sin.
As a result, his report says, public money is being spent by private educational institutions that “punish, denounce and even demonize students in the name of religion solely because they are gay, state that they are homosexual, happen to have same-sex parents or guardians, or express support or tolerance for gay students at school, away from school or at home.”
These tax credit scholarships are especially popular with advocates for school choice. The scholarship program now runs in 11 states, and since Georgia’s program began in 2008, $170,000,000 in tax credits have been funneled through the system.
Last year, the program helped 28 low-income students attend a particular high school whose tuition normally comes in at around $13,000. Prayer and church attendance are part of the school’s mandatory curriculum:
State Representative Earl Ehrhart, a Republican who runs the Faith First Georgia state scholarship organization, has said he will push to increase the amount of state money allocated each year for the scholarships to $100 million during this legislative session.
“There is a real taste for anything that promotes school choice in Georgia,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Fortunately, some are fighting back. A teacher at the Covenant Christian Academy filed a federal lawsuit last summer after her contract wasn’t renewed when she supported her high-school son for coming out as gay. Even some lawmakers recognize the program’s discriminatory implications:
“We are circumventing our own public policy with public money,” said State Representative Stacey Abrams, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “In our public schools, we do not disallow a child from attending on the basis of their sexual orientation.”
But those voices of reason seem to be the minority in a state where religion — namely Christianity — dominates every avenue of life, from culture to education. The most active lawmakers, officials, and parents in the state of Georgia seem to prefer education rooted in a “biblical moral code.” From their perspective, this program simply helps low-income students afford the private schools of their choice.
As if that weren’t bad enough?
And, they argue, the scholarship program is not discriminatory because it is open to all kinds of schools that might have different philosophical foundations than state-run public schools. It is a matter of choice and religious freedom, they say.
“You can be a Jewish school. You can be a Muslim school. It’s the same as a Catholic school or if I wanted to go to an all-girls school or a homosexual school,” said Claudia Hunt, who runs admissions for the Providence Christian Academy, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school in Lilburn.
I would like to see some numbers for how many Jewish schools or Muslim schools or “homosexual schools” benefit from this program. This reeks of a conservative push to eliminate the separation of church and state once and for all, even if masked by technicalities.