Advocates: School choice bill could shut out LGBTQ students

By: - March 3, 2021 1:17 pm
LGBT flags

Now is the time to codify protections for LGBTQ people in federal law. (Photo by Getty Images)

Governor Kim Reynolds’ school choice bill would provide funding for some public school students to attend private schools, but critics have questioned whether the proposal would be equitable for LGBTQ students.

The bill, Senate File 159, passed the Senate in full in January. Now, pieces of the legislation are advancing separately in the House just days before the Legislature’s first funnel deadline. Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said Wednesday that the Education Committee would not consider the private school funding program before the funnel. The Senate version of the legislation will remain up for consideration.

The “student first scholarship program” in that bill would allow public school students in Iowa’s least-successful districts to attend a private school. The scholarship could be used to pay tuition at private institutions, including religious schools that impose certain qualifications on students and families. 

However, some LGBTQ advocacy groups say that could mean openly gay or transgender students would be unable to transfer to some schools under the program, or that those schools could create an inhospitable environment for LGBTQ students who do attend.

“Private schools benefiting from a voucher program like this are also the school setting where LGBTQ students are least likely to be able to learn and thrive and succeed,” said Damian Thompson, director of public policy for Iowa Safe Schools, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Religious institutions exempt from some parts of the Iowa Civil Rights Act

George Washington Carver Academy, a public middle school in Waterloo, is one of the 34 schools identified by the federal government as needing comprehensive support. Under the bill, a student attending George Washington Carver Academy could use state funds to transfer to a private middle school instead.

One option is Waterloo Christian School, which offers a K-12 education just 5 miles away — if students can conform to the school’s expectations.

Waterloo Christian School is affiliated with the Walnut Ridge Baptist Church. The school outlines in its 2020-2021 family handbook that “(R)ejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God” and lists various forms of sinful sexual immorality, including homosexuality and bisexuality. 

“As a Christian school, Waterloo Christian School reserves the right to discriminate or impose qualifications based on religion, creed, gender questions, or sexual preference as allowed by the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” the handbook reads.

School administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

A study by LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa found that Waterloo Christian School is one of many schools in Iowa that may have discriminatory policies or practices against LGBTQ students.

One Iowa cataloged policies from over 170 Iowa nonpublic schools and found that 75% of the schools were “willing to discriminate against LGBTQ people.” That includes anything from not including gender identity and sexual orientation in anti-discrimination policies to explicit statements that LGBTQ students could be expelled for their gender or sexuality. The group found two dozen schools with policies that said explicitly that students could be expelled or teachers could be fired for being openly gay or transgender

“Only 15% had explicit non-discrimination protections that match all the protected classes in the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” said One Iowa lobbyist Keenan Crow.

Under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, educational institutions may not discriminate “on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability.” However, bona fide religious institutions have an exception to impose qualifications based on religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Those exceptions must be related to a “bona fide religious purpose.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa also opposed Senate File 159, arguing that the bill needed more safeguards to protect the separation of church and state.

“We would prefer that there would be some clear cut requirement that any receiving entity — parochial school, non-parochial private school, nonreligious school — would be subject to the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” lobbyist Pete McRoberts said. 

He also suggested an amendment that would require religious schools to use state money for non-religious, educational purposes. More broadly, McRoberts said, the ACLU opposes school voucher programs, advocating that public funds be used for public schools.

One Iowa agreed: religious schools may uphold their principles, but public money shouldn’t fund them.

“These nonpublic schools have every right to teach their religious principles as they see fit,” One Iowa lobbyist Crow said in a January meeting on the bill. “However, there’s nothing that obligates taxpayers to provide support for those institutions.”

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, argued in floor debate on the bill that private schools were not directly receiving taxpayer’s money. Instead, she said, the money was used as a scholarship fund in the student’s name. 

“These are scholarships to students,” she said. “These are not vouchers to schools.”

Students ask for more public school funding, rather than more choices

Paras Bassuk, a senior at West High School in Iowa City, said he views public schools as a creator of community.

Paras Bassuk is a high school senior from Iowa City. (Screen shot from Iowa Senate subcommittee meeting)

“I’ve really seen how community is built around public schools and around public school districts,” Bassuk said. “The public is invested in public schools, their tax dollars, and that investment reflects the impact of public schools on the community.”

That’s especially true for LGBTQ students, Thompson of Iowa Safe Schools said.

“Our public schools are our most vital resources for LGBT youth,” he said. “Our educators are our biggest allies. An LGBTQ student might not have anywhere to turn at home or (among) their friends, the educator will always be there for that.”

Rather than channel funds toward private and charter schools, Bassuk advocated for lawmakers to focus on the public schools that are struggling. The scholarship program would be available only to students who attend schools identified for “comprehensive support and improvement” by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Last year, 34 Iowa schools — many of them in urban areas like Des Moines, Waterloo and Davenport — fell into this category.

“If there is money to appropriate to education, it should go toward making our schools more equitable and making education more accessible and a better experience for all Iowans,” Bassuk said.

McRoberts of the ACLU agreed. The issue of underperforming schools is a serious one, he said, but it would not be resolved if some students choose a private school instead. A fiscal analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated that about 10,240 students will be eligible for the program. Of those, they predict 345 would take advantage of the scholarship program.

“If we’re not helping all of the students in that school system… realistically, only some of them are going to get helped, and that exacerbates the problem,” McRoberts said.

State Sen. Brad Zaun is a Republican from Urbandale. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

Republican sponsors of the bill in the Senate emphasized the importance of parental choice in education. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale said he saw “lives change” when students in the Des Moines Public School System were able to transfer to Dowling Catholic High School, where his children attended.

“The parents are the center of attention here,” Zaun said. “The students are the center of attention.”

In addition to allowing more educational options for students and families, supporters of the bill said, the program could create incentives for public and private schools to change for the better.

“My competition makes me better,” Zaun said. “This bill will make our public schools better, because of the competition. And that is a good thing.”

Hite said last week that he had not heard concerns from his caucus about LGBTQ students and the scholarship programs. Hite is the chair of the House Education Committee.

“I would probably look at it similar to the Iowa Tuition Grant to go to private colleges, many of them are religious-based,” Hite said. “I haven’t seen where that argument has been brought up on that specific program.”

Legislative action on school choice

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.