Vouchers' secret bigotry: How your tax dollars fund anti-LGBT hate

Outraged when you read about a school firing a gay teacher or expelling a gay student? You may be paying for it

Published December 12, 2013 12:45PM (EST)

  (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=2023381'>plherrera</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(plherrera via iStock)

This is the pattern: 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.

There is no doubt that what these schools do to LGBT faculty and students is despicable, but what’s often absent from the coverage of these cases is the fact that, in many states across the country, taxpayers are subsidizing their anti-LGBT agenda through state-sponsored voucher programs.

The connection between public dollars and the discrimination of private religious schools became abundantly clear last month when news broke that a Christian school in North Carolina with a “biblical morality code” -- which, among other provisions, banned LGBT students or children from LGBT families from enrolling -- was eligible for the state’s newly introduced, taxpayer-subsidized voucher program.

After receiving considerable scrutiny from the media, Democratic lawmakers in the state Legislature and members of the Wilmington community, Myrtle Grove Christian School announced on Tuesday that -- while it will continue to discriminate against LGBT students and families -- it will not accept vouchers from the state. This is good news for North Carolina taxpayers, but the (partial) attrition of one school is not nearly sufficient to ensure that the public isn't paying for anti-LGBT hate.

The taxpayer link to schools with anti-LGBT policies was similarly highlighted by Rolling Stone in a recent piece on the public money being funneled to such schools in Georgia. 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.

It's a problem Wisconsin state Rep. Christine Sinicki has been facing for more than a decade spent pushing for greater accountability and transparency in her state's voucher program. “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.”

Wisconsin is one of around 20 states with similar programs that divert taxpayer funds away from public education to private and primarily religious schools. And, like Wisconsin, many of these states have Republican-controlled legislatures. As Sinicki noted, a number of her conservative colleagues in the state House of Representatives are Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers with extreme privatization agendas to match their extreme anti-LGBT views.

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.

"Whatever one thinks about vouchers, they are ostensibly supposed to be about providing opportunities for families who can't afford to place their children in a higher-performing school or don't have access to a higher-performing school in their district," Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, told Salon. "In the end, cases like what we just saw in North Carolina show why these programs don't really represent a full spectrum of choice for all families."

The false promise of this privatization scheme can’t be separated from these discriminatory practices against LGBT students and families.

"Our most valued public institutions are currently being undermined by a very focused and determined set of opponents. We need public things -- education, transportation -- and we need these things to work well."

And what happened in North Carolina, far from being an isolated incident, is likely a harbinger of more to come if these voucher programs continue unchecked, she added. "I hope it serves as a wakeup call."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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