Cut Off Anti‐​LGBTQ Schools? It’s Complicated

This article appeared in Forbes​.com on February 20, 2020.
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Should we curb freedom because some people use it in ways we despise? That is at the heart of a burning controversy over Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and the solution is more complicated than you may think.

Over the last few weeks, a firestorm has erupted over families using business‐​funded scholarships, for which donors can claim tax credits, at religious schools with anti‐​LGBTQ policies. These include prohibiting employees from being in gay marriages, and students from advocating LGBTQ lifestyles. Companies like Waste Management and Fifth Third Bank, which have declared themselves LGBTQ‐​friendly while donating to scholarships, have been called out, and some have said they’d stop giving.

Although there are complicated issues here, one thing is easy to understand: freedom and equality require school choice. Quite simply, no single school can treat all, diverse people equally. One school cannot have, say, both uniforms and full student freedom of expression, or teach comprehensive sex ed and abstinence‐​only. That means when government runs a school—there is a crucial reason to call public schools “government schools”—it cannot provide equal treatment under the law, a basic constitutional requirement.

The group that public schools most clearly discriminate against are religious people, with religion being the only thing that public schools constitutionally cannot teach as true. This is not for a bad reason—some people are not religious, and religious people disagree on lots of theological matters—but nevertheless religious people are rendered unequal to non‐​religious under the law.

That said, public schools can still sometimes be too religious for some families. This can be through culture—most students may be religious—but also policy. Right now legislation mandating a daily moment of silence in public schools—which some fear edges too close to prayer—is under consideration in Tallahassee. In October a bill was introduced to make all public schools offer Bible courses. And the state requires that all public schools display “In God We Trust.”

Of course, religion is only one of many deeply personal matters about which diverse people differ strongly. Over just the last couple of years Florida public schools have seen conflicts over the Pledge of Allegianceschool reading listsbathroom policies, and more.

In stark contrast to public schooling, choice offers families equal treatment and peace, letting them avoid schools and beliefs that offend, and seek schools that share their values, cultures, and more. Rather than having to fight for public school supremacy, diverse people are set free.

But some people do not want a dime of their money going to schools with teachings or policies they despise. It is a significant concern when state money is used, such as with a voucher program. But a tax credit, as is under scrutiny in Florida (despite some people wrongly calling it a “voucher”) is built on funder choice, not state money.

This is good: When companies disapprove of how their funds are used, they can stop donating, protecting their freedom of conscience. But does that mean they should stop?

Ceasing to donate means that no one will get scholarships. That includes families like Elijah Robinson’s, who used a scholarship to move Elijah, who is gay, from a public school where he was relentlessly bullied, to the inclusive, Christian, Foundation Academy. And donors should keep in mind that choice will disperse overall education funding more in proportion to the diverse values held by Floridians than will public schooling—closer to true equality. People happy with public schools will stay, and those unhappy will be better able to access schools consistent with their beliefs.

Florida’s school choice situation is not as simple as saying “yes” or “no” to funds for anti‐​LGBTQ schools. Public schooling treats many people unequally, and the tax credit program helps to alleviate that by giving families choice. But it also gives donors freedom, allowing them to act on values they believe in. Now donors must decide which is more important: increasing choice, or zero tolerance for anti‐​LGBTQ policies?

It is a tough decision, but we should all be thankful they have the opportunity to make it. Because freedom is the most fundamental American value. 

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book “Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.”