A current controversy in the State of Florida calls into question some basic premises of the school choice movement. It shows once again that public money risks government control.
The central issue, described by Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is whether schools that accept government money can exclude students who identify themselves as LGBT.
Origins of “School Choice”
The school choice movement began with the famous economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006). A favorite of the Reagan revolution, Dr. Friedman’s 1979 book Free to Choose, and the accompanying PBS series, brought him out of his classroom at the University of Chicago and into the national consciousness.
Unlike most economists of his generation, Dr. Friedman placed great faith in the power of the free market. The school choice movement took off when he applied free-market ideas to education.
The movement began as people experience serious doubts about public education. At the same time, private schools, including Catholic schools, enjoyed a superior academic reputation. However, many of these schools were closing because of a lack of money.
Dr. Friedman suggested that the money that the government spends on schools could be reallocated. Parents could use this money to send their children to any school that they wanted. The market would then decide which schools would stay open or be closed.
A Long Simmering Controversy
The idea attracted both adamant supporters and feverish detractors. Supporters, including many proponents of Catholic education, hail it as their salvation. Detractors see it as the death knell of public schools.
In between lay many who acknowledged that such a plan would help Catholic schools. However, they feared that it could lead to a level of government control that would be inconsistent with Catholic teaching.
The current controversy in Florida revives such concerns. The catalyst is Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It provides state tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship-funding organizations (SFOs). The scholarships are then awarded to eligible children of low-income families.
The supporters of the program point out that the scholarship money never enters the public coffers. Therefore, some of the church-state issues that arise from other forms of school choice do not apply.
The Perils of Rejecting the Spirit of the Times
Enter the Orlando Sentinel. The paper claims that the state scholarship program causes “gay-friendly” companies to support schools that are opposed to the LGBT agenda. Sentinel reporters “reviewed documents of more than 1,000 private religious schools that take state scholarships and found 156 have policies that say gay and transgender students can be denied enrollment or expelled or that explain the school opposes their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.”
Like many states, Florida contains deep ideological divisions. Its three major population centers support liberal Democrats. The rest of the state, consisting of small towns and rural areas, tends to be more traditional.
Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits is the Florida scholarship program’s largest single donor. Based in Miami, it operates in forty-four states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. It places a heavy emphasis on being involved in charitable works in the communities in which it does business. It publishes a “Corporate Social Responsibility Report” that details their favored causes. Education is at the top of its list. Its nondiscrimination policy contains the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender and/or gender identity or expression.”
Southern Glazer’s responded to the Sentinel article “by forwarding a statement saying it opposed “discriminatory behavior, practices and policies against LGBTQ+ students in all public and private schools,” including those that receive scholarship money.
Similar statements came from other corporate donors to the scholarship fund. These included Wells Fargo, Fifth Third Bank, Geico, and Waste Management. They all issued statements indicating that the knowledge that some schools were opposed to the LGBT agenda might well affect future contributions.
Can Legislatures be Forced to Act?
According to the Sentinel, two current bills would forbid “discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity” in the schools that accept the scholarships. However, a similar bill was defeated last year.
Political setbacks have led the LGBT movement to adopt a new strategy. The Fordham Institute article claims that “What’s happening in Florida portends a new and divisive raising of the stakes in the battle over school choice that could echo beyond Florida. Having lost in the legislature and in the courts, a new playbook is being written before our eyes: Make ESAs [Education Savings Accounts] too hot for donors to touch.”
Such a situation puts state legislatures in a problematic position. These scholarships help thousands of students get a better education. The new strategy would provide cover for unprincipled legislators to claim that preserving the programs is more important than protecting the traditional values of the schools.
Is State Funding a Trap?
There is nothing inherently wrong with the state supporting schools run by the Church and religious institutions. However, such a course does have pitfalls. Catholic schools cannot allow themselves to become dependent on government funds. To do so is to place themselves in danger of having to choose between closing or violating Catholic moral law.
Under such circumstances, the temptation to render to Caesar the things that are God’s may prove all but irresistible.