State responds to private school voucher controversy

The state Department of Education headquarters on Gaines Street. Photo by Chris Bryant

The Florida Department of Education responded to the private school voucher program controversy Friday, saying that the initial story about the issue was inaccurate.

“The Orlando Sentinel story completely misrepresents a scholarship program that serves more than 100,000 students,100 percent of whom come from low-income families,” a DOE spokesman said in an email.

In late January the Orlando Sentinel published an article that revealed investigations into Florida’s student tax credit scholarships going toward anti-LGBTQ private schools. The article led to multiple companies including Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank halting support for the scholarship program “Step Up For Students.”

The private schools accused in the article consisted of 156 Christian private schools.

Fifth Third Bank announced Friday that after a thorough investigation it was determined that its support for the tax fund is not problematic because “students and their families make the decision as to which schools best fit the individual student’s educational needs. The choice is entirely up to them.”

In its statement the DOE noted that, “The Florida Department of Education has not received notice” of any such admission denials, expulsions, or mistreatment by the accused schools against any children for the reasons claimed in the article.”

The DOE countered the article’s claims stating, “Rather, the article is intentionally blurring the line between the faith-based background of some schools, freedom of speech, and trying to suggest that those are equivalent to discrimination.”

The statement referenced GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), saying that the activist organization produces a more balanced biennial National School Climate Survey that evaluates the challenges LGBTQ students face in all kinds of schools, not just one. The DOE also said that although it should be acknowledged that LGBTQ students in public schools encounter more anti-LGBTQ language and victimization than in private schools, “…to suggest that we condemn schools struggling with these issues would be a condemnation of most schools, public and private.”

The email also highlighted that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program has been around for 20 years and significantly increases the chances of these students earning a bachelor’s degree.

The DOE ended the email with this sentence, “What is happening in this situation, is that a few at the Orlando Sentinel have always taken issue with programs that are proven to continually increase the lives of poor and minority children, and are using this angle as nothing more than a ruse to create scare tactics and trample on the constitutional rights we all enjoy — the freedom of religion, and the freedom of speech.”