The Charlotte Observer
NC sent millions to private schools with anti-LGBTQ policies
Five Mecklenburg County private schools with policies that target LGBTQ+ people received nearly $750,000 in state money during the 2020-2021 school year, the most recently available data show.
Many more North Carolina private schools do the same, receiving public money through the contentious North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program.
This comes to light at a time when opponents are challenging discrimination at religious private schools against LGBTQ+ people in North Carolina. Just Friday, a federal court in North Carolina ruled that Charlotte Catholic High School violated federal employment protections when it fired a substitute teacher in 2014 after he announced plans to marry his same-sex partner.
Supporters say the scholarship program is designed to make private schools more accessible to marginalized students whose families couldn’t otherwise afford tuition.
“The money doesn’t go directly to schools,” said Paul “Skip” Stam, a former North Carolina Republican representative who helped create and pass the Opportunity Scholarship legislation. “Money follows the students through the parents.”
Opponents say it is spending public dollars to institutionalize discrimination.
“Basically if you throw a rock in North Carolina, you’ll find a private school doing this,” said
Matthew Ellinwood, NC Justice Center’s Education & Law Project director.
NOT AN ANOMALY
Among the 20 North Carolina private schools that received the most Opportunity Scholarships during the 2020-2021 school year, at least five had LGBTQ+ discriminatory policies. Their vouchers together totaled $2.6 million.
Policies range from demanding students dress in ways that conform to traditional expectations for their sex assigned at birth to prohibiting using school technology to access websites that “promote” LGBTQ+ communities.
In Mecklenburg County, five private religious schools received a total of $749,822 in Opportunity Scholarships during the 2020-2021 school year, while having stated policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and employees. Administrators at the five schools did not respond to Observer requests for comment.
Alumni recently brought Covenant Day School’s discriminatory policies to light. “God opposes the confusion of man as woman and woman as man,” one clause in the school’s handbook says. The handbook also says “that individuals should live in accordance with their biological sex.”
The Observer reviewed North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority records to find how much state money Covenant Day and other religious schools received through the Opportunity Scholarship program. Covenant Day received $116,882 in taxpayer dollars through the scholarship program during the 2020-2021 school year.
The program, like school voucher programs in other states, allows middle- and low-income families to apply for school vouchers to offset private school tuition costs.
Students, alumni and former faculty opposed to Covenant Day’s policies are documenting their experiences with homophobia at the school through a newly created Instagram account run by a school alumnus, and a petition to remove the school’s new policy had nearly 1,500 signatures as of Friday.
Such discrimination is forbidden in public schools, which must comply with Title IX within federal civil rights law. But private schools are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”
During the last school year, nearly 70% of private school students in North Carolina were enrolled in religious schools, according to North Carolina Department of Administration data. A 2017 Huffington Post analysis found that about 75% of voucher schools across the country are religious, usually Christian.
Hickory Grove Christian School received $349,440 in voucher funding during the 2020-2021 school year, more than any other private religious school in Mecklenburg County with policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. It has several sections on sexual identity and orientation in its 2020-2021 handbook.
It asks that Hickory Grove students, faculty, administration and staff “affirm their biological sex and refrain from any and all attempts to physically change, alter, or disagree with their predominant biological sex.”
However, the handbook also asks that students, faculty, administration, and staff “welcome and treat with respect, compassion, and sensitivity all who experience same-sex attractions.”
Northside Christian Academy, also in Charlotte, received $153,300 in Opportunity Scholarships during the 2020-2021 school year. It reserves the right to refuse admission or “discontinue enrollment” of a student “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity,” its 2020-2021 handbook says.
Carmel Christian School in Matthews, which received $48,300 in state vouchers during the 20202021 school year, had a sexuality policy in its handbook during that school year. The handbook says that “sometimes it becomes necessary to break the partnership” between the family and the school, such as in instances when families support LGBTQ+ people.
The school also had a “gender identity” policy that recognized only two genders, male and female, and limited staff, faculty, students, and guests to use restrooms and locker rooms, participate in sports, and abide by dress codes according to “biological gender.”
United Faith Christian Academy, which got $81,900, includes a “marriage and sexual moral conduct” clause in its handbook that says marriage is limited to a relationship between a man and woman.
Several other Mecklenburg County religious private schools have “statements of faith” in their handbooks that affirm that idea of marriage.
TRACKING STATE FUNDING
Matthew Blong, a Covenant Day alumnus, came out after graduating from the Matthews private Christian school. While he didn’t experience discrimination himself there, he witnessed homophobia often — which contributed to his hospitalization a few years ago, Blong said.
After he heard about Covenant Day’s new policy, Blong did some independent research — he discovered that “it’s pretty rare for a religious private school in North Carolina to not have some sort of policy that is discriminatory toward LGBTQ people.”
“When I started this, I thought Covenant Day was an anomaly,” he said.
Religious private schools from Fayetteville to Winston-Salem include anti-LGBTQ+ policies in their handbooks, an Observer review of the handbooks found.
The 2021-2022 handbook for Salem Baptist Christian School, which received more than half a million in state dollars last year, says students can be disciplined if they “participate in or make light of sinful behaviors such as homosexuality, transgenderism, [and] sexual immorality.”
Four hours away on the North Carolina coast, it’s grounds for “immediate removal” if Jacksonville Christian Academy students identify as LGBTQ+ or “otherwise immoral.”
“Homosexual or transgender conduct … is not compatible with employment or enrollment,” its 2019 handbook reads. The school received $459,009 in state dollars during the following school year.
Some schools that are top recipients of state vouchers without punitive measures still make their beliefs on LGBTQ+ people known in their handbooks.
Wayne Christian School in Goldsboro, which received $481,892 in state vouchers last year, includes a statement on “gender, marriage and sexuality” in its handbook for the new school year.
It condemns “homosexuality,” “lesbianism,” and “bisexual conduct,” and asks “all persons employed by the school and all persons who attend the school... agree to and abide by” the statement.
While Living Water Christian School in Jacksonville doesn’t explicitly enforce punishment for LGBTQ+ employees or students, its statement of faith is clear: “Marriage, as designed by God, is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment.”
The North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program is one of 27 school voucher programs across 16 states and the District of Columbia.
The state’s program, like voucher programs in other states, allows middleand low-income families to apply for school vouchers to offset private school tuition costs.
North Carolina Republican senators voted to expand the program in May, raising the income eligibility limits for another year and increasing the voucher amount, which is now capped at $4,200, by $1,650. Previously set at $72,000 for a family of four, the Senate approved bill would place the income limit at $85,794, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
The prospect that public dollars would be sent to schools where discrimination can occur is one reason that the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program has been controversial since it was established in 2014.
North Carolina parents, with support from the North Carolina Association of Educators and the National Education Association, filed a lawsuit in Wake County last year seeking to stop the use of state funds on vouchers. The lawsuit claims the program is unconstitutional, partially because it provides funds to schools that discriminate based on religious grounds.
‘A KIND OF WILD WEST’
Current law gives religious private schools the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and expression and gender identity — even if they get taxpayer money.
But that doesn’t mean they should, some advocates say.
Ellinwood, the NC Justice Center’s Education & Law Project director, said the issue of discrimination was one he and other school voucher opponents expected years ago, when the program was being created.
“I think there’s plenty of private schools that are welcoming … but we knew that there were schools that were likely to apply for the program and would practice that form of discrimination,” Ellinwood said, describing the voucher program as “a kind of wild west.”
“Frankly, I don’t know that the people who created this law would be bothered by this form of discrimination,” he added.
Stam indicated he is not.
“If people with LGBT want to go to private schools, then there are plenty of private schools that they can choose,” he said. “And if not, I’m sure the public schools of Mecklenburg County would not have an issue.”