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Florida Legislator Says Private School Voucher Program Violates State Law

Fifth Third Bank and Wells Fargo will stop donating millions of dollars to Florida's private school voucher program after reports that some schools in the program discriminate against LGBTQ students.
Fifth Third Bank/AP
Fifth Third Bank and Wells Fargo will stop donating millions of dollars to Florida's private school voucher program after reports that some schools in the program discriminate against LGBTQ students.

State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando is working to change Florida’s private school voucher program ‘Step Up for Students’ because he says it violates state law. Smith says Floridians have a constitutional right not to face discrimination regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identification.

It comes as two major banks and a timeshare company, Wyndham Destinations, are pulling their money out of the controversial program. A recent  Orlando Sentinel investigation found that 156 private Christian schools with alleged anti-LGBTQ views educated more than 20-thousand students around Florida, with tuition paid for by state scholarships.

Of those schools, 83 refused to admit LGBTQ students or would expel them if their sexual orientation or gender identity were discovered, according to the report. On the Florida Roundup, host Tom Hudson talked about the program and efforts to make it more inclusive with Rep. Smith. 

Here's an excerpt of their conversation:

The Florida Roundup: You planned on speaking with the education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, on Thursday. Were you able to have that meeting? And if so, what can you tell us about the topic of conversation? 

CARLOS GUILLERMO SMITH: Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you, Tom, for having me on for this really, really important discussion. We have been advocating for quite some time for there to be some accountability in our schools, our private school voucher system in the state of Florida. Specifically and especially around the issue of discrimination against gay and transgender students. 

Last night, I actually joined Representative Anna Eskamani, also of Orlando, to have a conversation with Commissioner Corcoran about how we can resolve this issue and fix this issue. What we heard from the commissioner was that there were folks on staff at the Department of Education who were reviewing this issue, that they were looking for possible policy changes that could not only end the discrimination against gay and transgender students at the schools who received these vouchers, but he said he wanted to do it in a way that respected First Amendment freedoms as well, which I understand. 

But, my takeaway from that, Tom, was that the commissioner is taking this issue seriously, and he understands that if he doesn't stop the bleeding as it relates to the withdrawal of corporate sponsorships from the program, then the financial integrity of the program is at risk. 

The Florida Roundup: Representative, what kind of specifics did you receive from the commissioner regarding those changes in practice and policies that he speaks about? 

SMITH: Well, I can tell you about some of the specifics that we shared that we would like to see happen. What we need to see is a policy change that says we will not send voucher money to private schools that have a written policy that bases student enrollments on someone's sexual orientation or gender identity--whether that be the student's sexual orientation or gender identity, or the parent, that has to be done away with. And we are laser-focused on making sure that change happens.

The Florida Roundup: Are Florida laws being violated in this practice?

SMITH: I believe so because it is every individual's constitutional right to not be discriminated against. No matter where they are, whether it's in a school, whether it's at work, whether it's in housing or in public accommodations. Obviously, this is a very broad issue. But you cannot expel a student based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and not run afoul of the Constitution.

The Florida Roundup: Those schools that the Orlando Sentinel identified and found in their investigation to be following those practices, will they be a target of legal action? Can they be the target of legal action, if you’re saying they’re violating the constitutional rights of those students?

SMITH: They potentially can be. And we've seen litigation when it comes to anti-LGBTQ discrimination in other areas of policy, most commonly in employment. 

But I want to also make sure that your listeners understand it's not only about the overt discrimination in writing that says that gay and trans students can be expelled. The way that some of these schools have written their student handbook code of conduct policies is they've also said that, for example, it would be a Class 1 violation, that is expellable to be gay or trans, but it's a Class 2 or Class 3 violation of student conduct to damage school property, to cheat, to lie to physically or verbally bully other students. 

And just think about the message that that sends, what they are saying, using taxpayer resources as they're trying to educate our children. They are saying it is worse to be gay or trans than it is to be a liar, a cheater, or a criminal, which is why they don't deserve taxpayer funding.

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Denise Royal