Backed by State Money, Georgia Scholarships Go to Schools Barring Gays
By KIM SEVERSON
Published: January 20, 2013
ATLANTA — As the nation works its way through the debate over vouchers and other alternatives to traditional public education funding, a quieter battle over homosexuality, religious education and school tax money is under way in Georgia.
Rich Addicks for The New York Times
Steve Suitts of the Southern Education Foundation wrote a report on a Georgia tax credit program’s use at religious-based schools.
Gregory Smith/Associated Press
State Representative Earl Ehrhart, right, in 2003. He runs one of the nonprofit conduits for donors in the scholarship program.
At issue is an increasingly popular tax credit program that transforms state money into private school scholarships, some of them used at religious-based schools that prohibit gay, lesbian or bisexual students from attending.
The policies at more than 100 such schools are explicit.
The 400 students at a private school in Woodstock, for example, must adhere to a policy that states, “Homosexual behavior, whether an ‘immoral act’ or ‘identifying statement,’ is incompatible with enrollment at Cherokee Christian Schools and is a basis for dismissal.”
A male student at the Shiloh Hills Christian School in Kennesaw, who utters “I like boys” or “I am a homosexual” will be expelled.
And at the 800-student Providence Christian Academy 20 miles north of Atlanta, a student who is gay, lesbian or bisexual or supports people who are could be kicked out.
At least 115 religious-based schools in Georgia have severe antigay policies, according to areport issued this month by the Southern Education Foundation. Public information about the scholarship program is limited by law, so the number is probably much higher, according to the foundation, which was founded in 1867 to improve education for poor children in the South.
Steve Suitts, the vice president of the foundation and the author of the report, said that as many as a third of the schools in the scholarship program have strict antigay policies or adhere to a religious philosophy that holds homosexuality as immoral or a sin.
As a result, his report says, public money is being spent by private educational institutions that “punish, denounce and even demonize students in the name of religion solely because they are gay, state that they are homosexual, happen to have same-sex parents or guardians, or express support or tolerance for gay students at school, away from school or at home.”
The foundation and other supporters of public education have long been critical of the state’s tax scholarship program, which has proved popular among parents at both liberal and conservative private schools.
The scholarships allow individuals and corporations to receive state tax credits for thousands of dollars in donations to nonprofit groups that, in turn, give the money to private schools. The scholarships are often aimed at public school children from low-income families who cannot afford private school.
The tax credit scholarships were conceived in Arizona in 1997 and now run in 11 states, gaining strength each year among people aligned with the school choice movement.
But they have also brought legal challenges from opponents who call the scholarships “neo-vouchers” and argue that they mask the use of public money to pay for education at private schools whose philosophical and educational underpinnings are at odds with state standards.
The program is intended to avoid conflicts between church and state because the money is collected and distributed by nonprofit organizations.
There is little state oversight of those organizations. The Georgia legislature in 2011 tightened the rules regarding how much information about the program the Department of Revenue, which keeps track of the money, can make public.
Since the Georgia program began in 2008, $170 million in tax credits have been given to people who donated to the nonprofit organizations that funnel money to private schools.
State Representative Earl Ehrhart, a Republican who runs the Faith First Georgia state scholarship organization, has said he will push to increase the amount of state money allocated each year for the scholarships to $100 million during this legislative session.
“There is a real taste for anything that promotes school choice in Georgia,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But other lawmakers promise to push back, especially in light of some of the exclusionary policies under which the private schools operate.
“We are circumventing our own public policy with public money,” said State Representative Stacey Abrams, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “In our public schools, we do not disallow a child from attending on the basis of their sexual orientation.”
“If this were to be happening at any public school,” she said, “the lawsuit would be great and the settlement extraordinary.”
No families whose children have been expelled over sexual orientation from a school that uses the tax scholarship program have come forward in Georgia.
But in Pennsylvania, a teacher at the Covenant Christian Academy filed a federal lawsuitlast summer because her contract was not renewed after she supported her son when he came out as gay on Facebook during his senior year. She dropped the case after a settlement was reached.
School administrators, legislators and parents who prefer an education based on a specific biblical moral code say the program helps the state save money. Children whose families might not otherwise be able to afford private school tuition get an accredited education at less cost to the state than if the student stayed in public school.
And, they argue, the scholarship program is not discriminatory because it is open to all kinds of schools that might have different philosophical foundations than state-run public schools. It is a matter of choice and religious freedom, they say.
“You can be a Jewish school. You can be a Muslim school. It’s the same as a Catholic school or if I wanted to go to an all-girls school or a homosexual school,” said Claudia Hunt, who runs admissions for the Providence Christian Academy, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school in Lilburn.
“That is why we are independent schools,” she said. “We all have different missions.”
Last year, Ms. Hunt said, the state scholarship program helped 28 low-income students attend Providence, where prayer and church attendance are a part of the curriculum. High school tuition at the school is $13,000 a year, and the average amount of state-supported help is $4,000 per student, she said.
“I can’t recommend it enough,” she said.