Ga. Dems. aim to curb public funds for anti-gay private schools
Lawmakers react after report shows some schools ban gay students
Georgia House Democrats, including openly lesbian Reps. Simone Bell and Keisha Waites, held a public forum at the Capitol Feb. 11 to discuss six pieces of proposed legislation focused on education.
The proposed bills, four of which have already been filed during the current legislative session, included The Restore & Build HOPE Act, the Anti-Discrimination Act, the Education Transparency Act, the Parent Protection Act, the Drop-Out Deterrent Act and the End Cyber-Bullying Act.
Two of the bills, the Anti-Discrimination Act and the End Cyber-Bullying Act, specifically address concerns of LGBT voters.
The Anti-Discrimination Act would ensure that private schools that receive funding from Schools Scholarship Organizations could not use public funds toward discriminating against students based on race, religion, national origin, sexuality or disability.
The bill, sponsored by Bell (D-Atlanta) and co-sponsored by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), is a response to a recent report by the Southeastern Education Foundation which highlighted a Georgia tax credit program, created in 2008 and managed by the Georgia Student Scholarship Organization, which allows Georgia taxpayers to “donate” a portion of their annual state income tax for use at private schools to provide scholarships to students in kindergarten through high school.
Those “donations” are matched dollar-fordollar with a tax credit on state income tax ― $50 million can be donated each year.
The bill has not yet been finalized, but Bell and other Democrats hope to have something put together during this legislative session. The effort could take years to pass.
Speaking during the public forum, Bell said a lack of transparency in how the funds are spent, plus a recent exposé published in the New York Times which showed how some public funds are being diverted to schools with blatant anti-gay policies through the tax credit program, highlights the need for additional oversight.
The ultimate goal, Bell said, would be to ensure that no public monies are being sent to schools that discriminate – for any reason.
“There are several reasons why this is important to us, but at the end of the day, it’s very simple,” Bell said. “Our state education dollars should not be used to fund discrimination. The SSOs were presented as scholarship programs designed to help students escape from failing public schools into private education.”
That hasn’t been the case, Bell added.
“There have been numerous reports, specifically by the Southeastern Education Foundation, and most recently in the New York Times, that have shown taxpayers’ dollars are getting to religious-based institutions that specifically discriminate on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or disability.
“There have been reports of harassment. There have also been reports of students being asked to leave schools. At the end of the day, public dollars should not fund this kind of discrimination and bias,” Bell said.
Another of the proposed pieces of legislation, entitled the Education Transparency Act (HR 221), would require private schools that receive funding from SSOs to provide detailed financial information on how that funding is used, donor information and other financial information to ensure a transparent process. Current law forbids SSOs from having to disclose such information, something House Democrats hope to change.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said this week that the statewide LGBT group is keeping an eye on any proposed legislation addressing public funds being directed to SSO programs.
“We’re very concerned about tax payer dollars funding programs like this that affect LGBT youth,” Graham said. “Whether there is a legislative solution depends on what we see in terms of language or whether there is any Republican support for it.”
Georgia’s House Republicans hold a solid majority. Passing any legislation requires Republican support, Graham said.
“Just because support might not be there, doesn’t mean it’s not an issue or not worthy of debate,” he added.
Fight against cyber-bullying
Waites, the newest openly gay member of the state legislature, also announced her bill, HB 19, the Drop-Out Deterrent Act, which would raise the age requirement from 16 to 17 for a student to drop out of high school without parental consent.
“It is our belief by extending the child’s stay in school, we are increasing their likelihood of employment and being a productive citizen,” Waites said. “According to the Department of Education, high school drop outs are twice as likely to live in poverty, as well as to commit crimes.”
The End Cyber-Bullying Act, which was introduced on Feb. 13, would expand on antibullying efforts enacted during the previous legislative session. Current law only protects students against instances of bullying on school property. The proposed legislation would expand the current law to include instances of bullying on social networking sites, cell phones and PDA devices.
State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta), the first openly lesbian African-American state lawmaker in the country, is sponsor of the Anti-Discrimination Act. (File photo)