Kasey Drayer, left, and Quinn Krapes work on a project in physical science class at the Albert Einstein Academy in Lakewood, Ohio.

Editor’s note: The Orlando Sentinel published a commentary today that accused the nonprofit scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, of “rainbow washing” by telling the stories of LGBTQ students who have used educational choice programs to find private schools that work better for them. Over the past three years, the newspaper has published nearly 130 news or opinion pieces critical of Florida’s K-12 scholarship programs, including 21 by today’s columnist. Step Up’s director of policy and public affairs, Ron Matus, has researched and written about LGBTQ students who choose private and charter schools. This is his response. 

Over the past two and a half years, I’ve interviewed more than a dozen LGBTQ students who benefitted from education choice. In most of those cases, the students told me they are probably alive because of education choice. Some were charter school students. Some were scholarship students.

One had attended a little private school in the boonies of North Florida. He never got a choice scholarship; his parents made too much money. But had it not been for choice scholarships, he said, that little school never would have existed – and instead of being in college, he’d be strung out and homeless. With most of these students, I talked with their parents, too.

In every case, I was up front with the students and parents about private schools in Florida. I told them there were some private schools that were not welcoming of LGBTQ students, and either would not enroll them or would expel them if they knew about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Not surprisingly, many of them already knew this. Not surprisingly, they were not fans of those policies. I’m not either. But I find this issue far more complicated than how it’s portrayed by opponents of education choice.

For what it’s worth, I take this issue personally. I have friends, family, colleagues, co-workers and neighbors who are members of the LGBTQ community. I wouldn’t stay at Step Up if we were doing anything to hurt them. One of my close friends in college was gay, and he tried to kill himself while I lived with him. One of my girlfriends in college was bisexual, and during the years we hung out, she tried to kill herself. One of my best friends at the student newspaper was gay. He frequently invited me over for dinner, and it was during one of those dinners that I met a drag queen for the first time.

I’m sorry to say I can’t remember her name, but I do remember she liked steak and malt liquor more than I did. My friend was frequently depressed, and while we were both still working for the newspaper, he died in his home under mysterious circumstances. To this day, I fear his death was connected to the inner turmoil he endured, for no good reason, because he was gay. I could go on with the stories, but I’m hoping this is enough to make my point.

One of the things that shocked me as I learned from LGBTQ students in choice schools was the extent to which anti-LGBTQ sentiment is still so prevalent in our schools. Knowing how much progress we’ve made as a society towards LGBTQ acceptance and equality, I had assumed LGBTQ students were in a much better place than they were a generation ago. I assumed wrong.

For far too many LGBTQ kids, school is still an absolute nightmare. The survey data from GLSEN is depressing and infuriating. So are all the stats about LGBTQ youth suicides, and attempted suicides, and substance abuse, and self-harm. I have to wonder: How is this not a bigger story? How can this much pain in plain sight be so overlooked? How many suicides does it take before somebody finally does a “deep dive”?

The survey data is also revealing. All school sectors are falling tragically short in providing safe learning environments for LGBTQ students, but the truth is, district schools are among the worst offenders. I don’t bring this up to point fingers at district schools; we try hard at Step Up not to do that. We know district schools are doing often heroic work for tens of millions of students, including many LGBTQ students. But the survey data can’t be shrugged off.

That backdrop of widespread abuse in district schools is crucial context for why learning options are so important for LGBTQ students, as they are for so many other vulnerable students. The LGBTQ students I met in charter schools and private schools are the faces behind those data points. They told me that unrelenting harassment in district schools is why they left, and why they were so grateful to have options.

I don’t dismiss the issues with private schools that are not LGBTQ welcoming. They’re there. The best evidence I’ve seen shows those schools are a small percentage of private schools. But still, they’re there. I wrestle with it constantly. I try my best to understand it from every angle. I wish there was an easy answer. But … there isn’t one. That’s another piece of vital context missing from this “debate.” Those schools have a right under the First Amendment to participate in government programs.

You can’t just pass a law to bar them from accepting students on scholarship and think it’s over. The law would be challenged and overturned. These constitutional clashes between liberty and equality must grind through the courts, and when it comes to emerging LGBTQ rights, that’s exactly what’s happening. Look at Bostock. Watch what happens with Fulton v. The City of Philadelphia.

I know folks on “both sides” (as if there are only two sides) don’t want to hear that. Nobody wants to be told to be patient when it comes to liberty or equality. But this is complicated. Why do you think there was an exemption specifically for religious schools in the bill to create the Florida Competitive Workplace Act — the bill that was meant to protect LGBTQ citizens in employment and housing, and that drew a ton of Democratic co-sponsors? Drawing that line between liberty and equality takes time.

In the meantime, LGBTQ students desperately need options. Options that for many of them would be life changing, if not lifesaving, because the learning environments they’re in now are that toxic. How can that part of “the debate” be so utterly ignored?

That student from North Florida now lives in a desert town out West. He told me even when it’s scorching hot, he wears long sleeves – because he doesn’t want anybody to see the scars on his arms from where he cut himself. Just like Marquavis, and Elijah, and Kiwie, and the other LGBTQ students I’ve written about, he said the bullying in his district school was horrific.

Initially, he shared the details with me, and told me I could write about it. But the next day he called to say that just talking about what happened to him in high school returned him to a dark place. It would hurt too much to share the story publicly, he said. I told him I understood. He told me to keep telling these stories.

So I’ll tell you one last one: In 2018, I visited a charter school for LGBTQ students near Cleveland. After I toured the school and sat in a couple classrooms, I got to chat in a conference room for a couple of hours with five or six students. They were … the best. They were patient with me, and so kind, and wise, and unbelievably brave. Towards the end of the conversation, we talked about the private schools in Florida that weren’t LGBTQ welcoming.

At the time, by coincidence, there had been some scrutiny about Florida’s Hope scholarship. Again, they weren’t surprised. Again, they weren’t fans. But their views were far more thoughtful and nuanced than some of the folks who think they’re speaking for them.

I mentioned I knew of two cases where those schools took in and saved non-LGBTQ scholarship students who were bullied to the brink of suicide in public schools. “Are you okay with those schools saving other kids,” I asked, “even if they wouldn’t save you?”

Maybe it’s because they knew what it was like to be on the brink with no options and no hope. But every one of them said yes.

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