Why Taxpayer Money is (Still) Funding Anti-Gay Private Schools December 15, 2013

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)

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  • WoodwindsRock

    You know what I have always found funny about conservatives pushing for vouchers?

    That they’re the ones that always claim that the government should stay out of everything, especially the “rights” of private institutions. But when it comes to the government FUNDING them, then all of the sudden it’s okay.

  • Whitney

    How disappointing. I thought the US of A had learned years ago about this sort of behavior, but it appears I was in error.

    Despite what might have been claimed, the voucher system is not doing well in Arizona, either. It’s not just the LGBT issues, it’s also the quality of education. It’s really no better in a private school than it would be in a public one. Dividing up a monetary pie for a few children really doesn’t make sense anyway, as resources are much better used in a manner that benefits ALL the children attending schools.

    And really, kids are going to have to learn to deal with others who disagree with their religious ideals eventually, if a parent is so worried about it, why not make it a learning experience? What do you expect to happen with little Susie or Johnny gets to the workplace? “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t work with Steve, he’s gay and I don’t support that.”? The employer is going to fire your precious darling on the spot!

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    The term “school choice movement” seems misleading to me. People have a right to choose any school for their children they like. However, the government only funds schools it can ensure use those funds for what they’re supposed to be used for. As it is in the United States, those are rarely anything else than public schools. If anyone desires for public funds to be used to send their children to some other school, they should work to have those schools monitored well first before they get funded.

  • Eli

    Yeah, and they’re also the same ones that argue that taking government money is a “handout,” yet they seem perfectly willing to do it here.

  • see also:

    “Keep your government off my Medicare” teabaggers
    “we don’t need your Federal rules and regulations, except when there is a hurricane and we don’t have enough money to clean up the damage”
    “secular government is Evil, except when it pays for our Faith based scams”

    gosh that’s a long list, innit? but just as long as no black or brown people got honest, hardworking, bootstrap pulling white xtian money, it’s OK!

  • Stev84

    >”with strongly registered disappointment that private schools are legally empowered to discriminate”

    Not even that. A lot of the time it’s just acknowledged as a matter of fact and sometimes even lauded as a good thing (“Yeah, it’s sad for the teacher, but they should have that right”). As if being “private” should automatically entitle people to be exempt from commonly applicable laws or regulations just because there is a tenuous connection to religion.

    Allowing some freedom in hiring may be understandable, but it goes a lot further. “Religious” day care centers for example are exempt from the usual licensing requirements and controls. That gave them a market advantage and allowed them to edge out normal day care centers. In addition to often having substandard care that nobody can do anything against.

  • Rando

    Don’t forget the ones that swear “there is no separation of church and state,” except when their tax exempt status is threatened and then they magically find the separation in the Constitution.

  • This is so typical of the Fundies (including Catholics). They want that taxpayer money but then they want the exemptions that should only come if they don’t take it. If you threaten to either force them to treat everyone fairly or take away the money they will scream persecution. If they want to discriminate against me, they shouldn’t get to use my money to do it.

  • RN from NY

    “School reform” in the way of private school vouchers and charter schools has nothing to do with helping poor children get good educations, that’s just the PR line to get it past the stupid taxpayers who can’t see the forest through the trees. In reality, it’s a way to funnel public taxpayer dollars to the types of schools politicians want to flourish: Christian, white, uppity-schools. Charters have ways of keeping out undesirables: requirements for parental involvement (poor parents don’t have time or transpiration to “volunteer”), strict expulsion policies, and some even have entrance exams. And of course private schools can do whatever they please. It’s all designed to make the real public schools the dumping ground for the unwanted children. Ever heard of school-to-prison pipeline? Prisons are a private business nowadays, and politicians want to keep them filled. According to the ACLU, we have increased incarcerations 700% since the 1970’s, and the best way to incarcerate is to provide a poor education (they estimate the number of future prisons needed based on the number of 11-year-olds who are poor readers.) And don’t get me started on firings/shaming teachers by publishing their rank in the newspapers based on student test scores: they want teaching to be a temp job, because that’s another way to provide a poor education: no more experienced, passionate teachers who know what they’re doing.

    Can you tell I’m a former teacher?

    I encourage all of you to follow @DianeRavitch and her online blog for the truth about education “reform.”

  • RN from NY

    This issue goes so much further than money or religion. The politicians are creating two separate school systems: charter/private school and public. Didn’t we learn something about how well “separate but equal” works in the 1950’s?
    I am so sad that America has gotten nowhere in the past 60 years. We are repeating history. And this is happening, ironically, under a black president.

  • Neko

    Well, the mid-terms will be here before you know it.

  • Ann Onymous

    Hmm, O’Reilly? Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a “relationship with Jesus”? NO TAX EXEMPTIONS FOR YOU!

  • We need an anti-voucher meme, to make the idea of vouchers trigger sentiment against them.

    Maybe something like “VOUCHERS are the VULTURES of the American school system.”


  • Thank you.

  • Malcolm McLean

    The idea of a separation of religion and state is that the government doesn’t dictate religious policy, for instance by running schools in which certain religious views are promoted, then forcing or effectively forcing children to attend them.

    Now if the State runs schools, it’s therefore got to run a religiously neutral policy. But what is such a thing? It’s hard to answer, For instance a lot of parents would take the view that sexual activity is inappropriate for children, and that if you identify as LGBT or a similar group, then you need to be in a more adult environment. Others would say “that’s not religiously neutral”. There’s no obvious way to resolve that dispute.

    So move to a voucher system. Parents decide the school, the school decides its religious policy, the state is no longer running schools, everyone is happy except those who want to dictate something to other people’s children, or those with such eccentric views that there aren’t enough who share them to support a school where they feel happy (they can homeschool, ultimately they’ve got accept the consequences of their position).

  • Dal Bryn

    “though it appears to remain eligible for vouchers”

    And that’s is why so many on the Religious Right love vouchers.

  • $84687101

    I’ve got a crazy idea, let’s just stop taking tax dollars away from public schools and giving it to private schools.

    Seriously, how hard is that? No tax money or other government revenue goes to private schools.

    Sadly, too many people have been hoodwinked into thinking “school choice” is actually a solution of any kind for the problems of our education system. It’s not. It’s simply a way to funnel money out of public schools and into private schools. It is in no way focused on helping students. If it were the private and charter schools would be held to the same standard as public schools. If it were, they’d be required to take any student in order to receive any vouchers.

    In fact, while I’m certain most supporters of “school choice” really do think it’s just an alternative to help students in troubled schools, I’m equally convinced that the ultimate goal for at least some of the people who started it and are behind it today is the elimination of public schools altogether. That is, after all, pretty much the Republican approach to just about everything.

    Also sadly, there appears to be almost no one out there willing to take on “school choice” head on, instead we have people talking about “doing it better”, or keeping the money out of anti-gay schools, or creationist schools. Better to keep it out of private schools of any kind. Isn’t that our approach to religious monuments?

  • $84687101

    That is pretty much their approach, isn’t it: It’s not so much that taxes are bad, the problem is that we’re not giving the taxes to private entities.

  • $84687101

    Handouts are fine, they just need to go to businesses and rich people.

  • $84687101

    We seriously need a vocal movement to stop the “school choice” nonsense. Sadly, at least half the Democratic Party have sold us out on this issue. As you say, they’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

    I think I just heard Diane Ravitch on NPR the other day, first I’d heard of her, but it’s so refreshing to hear someone passionately defending public schools.

  • B Dallmann

    It’s outrageous that these schools are allowed to discriminate while accepting public money. That being said, I don’t agree with the Salon article author’s implication that even privately funded schools shouldn’t be able to hire or fire at will.

  • B Dallmann

    In fact, “school choice” actually increases segregation and decreases accountability…the kind of accountability that actually matters, not the kind that measures test scores and fires good teachers based on them.

  • B Dallmann

    More people should follow her blog. She just posted something a couple days ago about a film that’s being made in protest against “school choice.” Kind of a response of sorts to Waiting for Superman.

  • B Dallmann

    I agree with you here. Maybe people here will disagree, but I think private schools that are completely privately funded should be able to hire or fire LGBT individuals if they conflict with their teachings. However, they shouldn’t be given free reign to hire or fire just anyone. Otherwise schools might hire sex offenders disguised as devout priests >.<

  • Little_Magpie

    also, “keep your governemnt off my Medicare” types are often the exact same people who want the government to interfere with medical decisions – when it’s a woman’s reproductive health, that is. Because different rules for teh wimmins, obviously. Which is presumably because penis?

  • Little_Magpie

    I have no problem with private schools existing. They just shouldn’t be getting public funding. If private schools aren’t inherently better academically, this doesn’t *necessarily* privilege the affluent. (Especially as they are likely to be living in districts with top notch-public schools anyway. I won’t get into why it is so, but I think we can all agree that high-righted public school are most likely to be in high-SES neighbourhoods.)

    Admission: I went to private schools pretty much my entire schooling life, but never for religious/moral reasons. For instance, one was a French immersion school. It also happened to be easy walking distance from home. It had fairly high tuition and frankly was full of snotty rich-even-by-my-standards kids. (Middle and high schoolers can be cliquey and mean-spirited in any case, but I swear this adds a whole new twist to it.)
    The other was a school for the gifted, which also had ties to the nearby university’s Education department, and sometimes was a lab school for teaching students. When I started there it was “semi-private” in that it did receive some government money, but also there was tuition. Then we lost that funding and of course tuition went up… While this still ended up being a firmly middle-class and up school, they have a pretty good bursary program for less-affluent students, to make it possible for those who qualify academically but aren’t wealthy enough to pay full tuition to attend. Where does the bursary fund come from? Largely from well-to-do alumni/ae.

    sorry for the teal dear.
    tl;dr: private schools shouldn’t be getting public money; there are other ways of funding them that get around prohibitive tuition fees.

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