Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal and Annie Martin | October 7, 2020
Florida’s statewide LGBTQ civil rights group, which wants anti-gay discrimination banned in private schools that take Florida’s scholarships, will provide training to any of those schools that want to be more welcoming to gay and transgender students.
The new training program will be offered by Equality Florida through a new partnership with Step Up For Students, the organization that administers the bulk of Florida’s school scholarships, often called vouchers.
During the 2018-2019 school year,more than 20,800 students, or about 14% of Florida’s nearly 147,000 scholarship students, used state scholarships to pay tuition at Christian schools with anti-gay views, an Orlando Sentinel investigation published in January found.
So far, five private schools have signed on for the new training, paid for by private donations raised by Step Up. None of the five have anti-gay policies, according to the Sentinel’s investigation, and one has been highlighted by Step Up as a school known to be welcoming to gay and transgender students.
Equality Florida, which already has a training program for the state’s public schools, is eager to work with any private school that wants to make changes.
“We’re going to seize that opportunity,” said Nadine Smith, the group’s executive director, in announcing the program on Tuesday. “At the end of the day what we want is that no student be humiliated, no student be rejected, no student be unsafe when they go to school.”
Smith said she hopesother private schools reach out as well.
“They understand the common ground we have is that we want a safe learning environment for every student and that we can build on that common ground,” she added.
About 2,000 private schools take state-backed scholarships, which cover tuition for students from low-income families or for those with disabilities.
Nearly 160 of them have anti-gay views, the newspaper found, and about half of those have policies not to admit gay students or to discipline them if their sexual orientation were discovered.
Step Up, in a statement, said it began talks with Equality Florida two years ago and raised $1 million from private donors to fund the new effort, which began with training for its staff. It declined to name the donors but said the money will pay for the training program for four years.
The goal is to “ensure every child regardless of their identity has access to safe learning environments,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up’s president, in a statement.
Equality Florida’s “safe and healthy schools” project looks to “create a culture of inclusion” and battle bullying, harassment and social isolation inflicted on some LGBTQ students. The group works now in 63 of the state’s 67 public school districts.
Employees at Sunrise Academy in Orange City received the training about three weeks ago, Upper School Principal Levi Connolly said. The secular academy serves several LGBTQ students, and Connolly said he wanted his staff to have a better understanding of the challenges they might face because school is often the first place gay and transgender children come out.
“All students’ lives are equally valuable, and we want our students to have an equal start,” he said.
About 98% of the school’s 240 K-12 students use a state scholarship to pay tuition, Connolly said.
Deeper Root Academy in Orange County also is participating. The school’s founder and administrator could not be reached for comment.
For the past two years, some Democratic lawmakers have pushed for a change to Florida’s school voucher law, which now only bans discrimination based on “race, color or national origin” but makes no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Equality Florida supports such legislation. “We maintain that position, that tax dollars should not go to schools that are allowed to tell students, ‘Your kind is not welcome here’,” Smith said.
The Republican-led Florida Legislature, however, has resisted those efforts as have many of the religious schools, which say their beliefs are found in the Bible and are the foundation of their faith. Parents can choose other schools for their children, school administrators argue, if they dislike the religious views taught on their campuses.
The leaders of two organizations that accredit several schools with anti-gay policies did not respond to requests for comment from the Sentinel on Tuesday.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who pushed for anti-discrimination rules for voucher schools, said Step Up’s partnership with Equality Florida is a promising sign.
“This is a major step that reduces anti-LGBTQ discrimination at voucher-funded private schools,” said Smith, who works for Equality Florida.
He cautioned, however, that the partnership “doesn’t change that Florida taxpayers continue to fund private schools who unapologetically expel students for being gay or transgender.”
Smith said the Legislature and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, despite public outrage prompted by the Sentinel’s story, failed in their duty, leaving others “to find ways to make progress without them.”
The new training“certainly doesn’t change the Legislature’s moral responsibility to take action to end this injustice that hurts our kids,” Smith added.
He noted that several of the schools, including Deeper Root, that have agreed to the training are faith-based.
“The fact that some faith-based schools are participating proves that religious freedom and dignity for LGBTQ students are not mutually exclusive,” he added.
Step Up said it has not taken a position on the legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientationbut last year warned that its adoption could lead to “missteps” and legal challenges and “could result in fewer scholarships for vulnerable students, including LGBTQ students.”
The scholarships are awarded without regard to LBGTQ status, and Step Up has said that some gay and transgender students have used them to escape bullying in public schools.