The recent controversy involving the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship and LGBTQ students reflects the complex and evolving intersection of constitutionally protected religious freedoms and emerging LGBTQ rights. It does not lend itself to simple solutions.
One thing is clear, though. Any resolution must abide by the prime directive of physicians: First, do no harm.
Opponents of the FTC violated that ethical axiom when they began pressuring donors to withdraw from the program in order to achieve their desired policy goal — pass legislation that would prohibit private schools from participating in the FTC if they were deemed to discriminate against LGBTQ students. Even though we have no evidence of any LGBTQ scholarship students being treated inappropriately.
Those tactics would have hurt only those who benefit from the program: more than 100,000 low-income students, three-fourths of whom are black or Hispanic. Fewer donors mean fewer scholarships for students, including LGBTQ students, who need them most.
Every $1 million withdrawn from the program results in nearly 150 students being evicted from their schools.
Had the opponents succeeded in gutting the program of donors, thousands —if not tens of thousands —of disadvantaged children would have been denied opportunities to attend schools of their choice.
That point was driven home a week ago when 100 black and Hispanic ministers, accompanied by more than 100 parents and FTC students from across Florida (as well as four black Democratic state lawmakers who support the program), rallied at The Capitol to illustrate how this attack on donors would hurt disadvantaged children.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.
I was glad to see Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat, step in and counsel his colleagues that “ripping scholarship funding out from underneath thousands of economically vulnerable students … is not the answer.” Thanks, in part, to Rep. Jones’ leadership many opponents de-escalated their efforts to chase away donors.
Meanwhile, Fifth Third Bank, which contributed $5 million to the FTC program last year, reversed its earlier decision to leave and agreed to return to the fold. The company came to understand that they were funding students and not schools, as opponents had asserted, and parents were deciding what schools their children attended.
That was a victory for some 700 students whose scholarships were funded by Fifth Third’s donation.
Going forward, it’s important to remember that it’s always better to have more education choices not less, so families can find the right fit for their kids. School choice scholarships give them those options.
In some cases, these choices can be lifesaving.
LGBTQ students face hostility in public and private schools. According to a 2017 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), LGBTQ students reported they were more likely to experience bullying, harassment and assault due to their sexual orientation in a public school than in a private school.
For Elijah Robinson, a student who experienced this kind of treatment, an FTC scholarship was his only way out of a desperate situation in his public school. Attending a private school allowed him to find peace and to thrive. Ironically, anything that endangers the FTC program could wind up hurting the very LGBTQ students’ opponents claim they want to protect.
For two decades, Florida has led the nation in providing more education options for its students and families, and over that period has seen academic gains in the public and private sectors.
The state cannot afford to retreat from that commitment.
Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Republican from Hialeah Gardens, chairs the Senate Education Committee.