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Home / Family / Erika Donalds defends controversial school voucher program – News – Sarasota Herald

Erika Donalds defends controversial school voucher program – News – Sarasota Herald

Carol Lerner, founder and chair of Protect Our Public Schools Manasota (left) and Erika Donalds, leader of the School Choice Movement [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Anna Bryson]

A new debate over the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program made its way to Sarasota Thursday at a Sarasota Tiger Bay luncheon.

The controversy began two weeks ago when an Orlando Sentinel investigation reported that the Florida scholarship program, often referred to as school vouchers, sent over $129 million to private, religious institutions that discriminate against LGBTQ students. The Sentinel found that 83 schools explicitly deny LGBTQ students from attending and 73 additional schools say that being gay or transgender is a sin but receive public tax money through the scholarship program.

All students receiving the vouchers to attend private schools are in poverty, Erika Donalds, a leader in the state‘s school choice movement, said at the luncheon panel at Michael’s On East.

“The average income of the tax credit voucher families is $21,000 a year… That is hardly enough to barely survive, much less, you know, provide any additional educational options for your students,” Donalds said. “So that gives you an idea of the program that’s being attacked and the people who are being attacked.”

Ron Meyer, the former general counsel of the Florida Education Association, countered that the money is “not going to the poorest of the poor.”

“For a family of three you can be making $65,000 a year and get a voucher for your children,” Meyer said.

The panelists were essentially divided into two sides: pro-voucher and anti-voucher.

On the pro-voucher side was Donalds a leader of the school choice movement, who was appointed by former Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran (now Commissioner of Education) to be on state‘s Constitutional Review Commission. She was the author of Amendment 8, known as the charter school amendment, which would have taken control of charter schools from local districts and given to the state. It was struck from the ballot by the state Supreme Court in a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters in 2018.

Donalds noted that the vast majority of private schools in the U.S. and in Florida are offered by religious institutions.

“The state is not selecting a religious school to provide a tax credit scholarship or a voucher,” Donalds said. “The state is selecting a student and saying this student is deserving of this voucher because their parents, unlike most of us in this room, cannot afford another educational option that the one they are zoned for.”

Aligned with Donalds was John Legg, the co-founder and Chief Financial Officer of Dayspring Academy, a charter school in Pasco County. He is also a board member of Step Up for Students, an agency that distributes voucher money to private schools. He served in the Florida Legislature for 12 years and during his tenure, authored landmark legislation addressing accountability standards, school choice and tenure reform.

Legg said that the pressure that’s been put on traditional public schools because of school choice has allowed parents to customize their children’s education, he said.

On the other end of the spectrum was Carol Lerner, founder and chair of Protect Our Schools Manasota, a nonprofit that advocates for public education. She has been an advocate of Community Partnership Schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties and opposes public spending on private schools.

The other panelists “talk about the right to choose but they also are using a business model, looking at education with children almost as a commodity,” Lerner said. “And I think that’s really wrong.”

Lerner focused on the lack of regulation and oversight in private schools.

Agreeing with Lerner was Meyer, the former general counsel of the Florida Education Association.

“There’s no regulation. If you’re a warm body and you don’t operate a school building that’s likely to burn down and you don’t hire a convicted child molester — guess what, you are in business and you can get a voucher,” Meyer said.

Sarasota County School Board member Jane Goodwin, who is also opposes using tax money on private schools, asked a question from the audience and jousted with Donalds after Donalds alleged that school boards, not the Legislature, are responsible for micromanagement that occurs in classrooms.

“Isn’t it true that Florida has the most expansive school choice program in the country?” Goodwin asked Donalds. “You can even go across county lines in Florida. You don’t have to go to the school where your house is located.”

While Lerner and Meyer touched on the LGBTQ discriminatory policies in private schools that receive taxpayer money, the others shied away from the topic.

In Sarasota County, according to the Sentinel investigation, Venice Christian School received $864,972 in the 2018-19 school year and its policy states that the school “retains the right to refuse enrollment to or to expel any student who … professes to be homosexual/bisexual/transsexual (sic) or is a practicing homosexual/bisexual/transsexual (sic), as well as any student who condones, supports or otherwise promotes such practices.”

Calvary Chapel School in Sarasota received $189,197 and Bradenton Christian School, in Manatee County, received $1,116,429. Both have similar policies.

After the Sentinel investigation, Fifth Third Bank and Wells Fargo announced they are halting future donations to the tax credit scholarship program.