Feature

Some Wisconsin private schools retain anti-LGBTQ+ policies while receiving state dollars

By having a unique status as a voucher school, some private institutions are able to exclude LGBTQ+ students and staff while receiving tax dollars. 

By having a unique status as a voucher school, some private institutions are able to exclude LGBTQ+ students and staff while receiving tax dollars. 

Image By: Max Homstad

Rock County Christian School is a private college preparatory school in Beloit, Wisconsin. It teaches kindergarten through 12th grade and is operated by a nonprofit, interdenominational, evangelical Christian parent support organization. The school aims to allow students to thrive spiritually, academically, socially and physically, according to their website.

It also has provisions in the school constitution against gay marriage, transgender individuals and bisexuals.

“One of the reasons I left [RCCS] was that I strongly disagreed with their treatment of the LGBT community and ideas,” said AJ, who attended RCCS from kindergarten through freshman year of high school.  

RCCS is funded by tuition, donations, grants and — interestingly enough — tax dollars.  

Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Parental Choice Program grants state funding to schools like RCCS through vouchers — taxpayer-funded tuition subsidies that help children attend private schools, the vast majority of which are religiously affiliated.  

What is a voucher school?

Public schools receive a sum of money for each student they teach. Private schools do not. However, when a private school applies to become a voucher school, a student, usually from a low-income family, can then attend the private school, taking the state-provided “voucher” money with them. 

The private school — instead of the public school — then receives that voucher as state funds to teach the student, in the place of a privately paid tuition. 

Since the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program began in 2013, these schools have collected over 51 million state dollars. Last fall, the annual voucher payments in Wisconsin rose to about $7,500 per K-8 student and around $8,000 per high school student. 

Voucher schools exist in a legal capacity opposite of public schools, as they receive state funds but abide by a fraction of the rules and regulations that public schools do. 

All public institutions must abide by equal protection, ensuring individuals are treated equitably and the state has a justified reason for any difference in treatment. 

A loophole

So, in theory, it should not be possible for voucher schools, since they receive public funds, to discriminate against volunteers, staff or students on the basis of marriage, gender or sexuality. 

Dr. Julie Mead, an expert on school law and co-author of “How School Privatization Opens the Door for Discrimination” assured it is possible for these schools to receive state money while actively discriminating. 

“What we define as discriminatory applies differently in public and private spaces,” she said.

While a public school must find a way to cater to any students’ needs in providing an appropriate education, private schools are not held to the same standard.

Although voucher schools do receive public funds, they are not subject to laws like Title IX or the Americans with Disabilities Act that protect students and staff from discrimination. 

“They operate outside these laws,” Mead explained. 

Meaning, if a school does not have pre-existing programs to cater to a student then, as a voucher school, they are not obligated to take that student.

“The voucher language itself, about what schools have to permit and what they don’t have to permit, may make it possible to exclude LGBTQ kids or even straight kids whose parents are LGBTQ,” Mead said. “And because they have broken no law, they have not discriminated.” 

These tendencies are allowed by the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, she added.

“I don’t think the teachers there are very tolerant of LGBTQ people at all,” AJ said.

AJ shared they had a friend at RCCS who told teachers he was straight so they would leave him alone. They clarified that they didn’t take extreme measures to change him, but the school obviously did not want him to be gay.

“[Staff at RCCS] were never outright rude but they had the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ attitude. Which, personally, I find insulting,” AJ said.

A quick browse of the Rock County Christian School’s list of “Foundational Statements,”  reveals their position on the LGBTQ+ community and features frequent references to scripture for support.

“We believe that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female. These two distinct, complementary genders together reflect the image and nature of God,” one of their statements reads. “Rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person.”

The school affirms that marriage is between a man and a woman, and prohibits faculty, employees and volunteers from going against any of the ten beliefs outlined within their Statement of Faith, reserving the right to turn away those who do.

In total, 222 private schools in Wisconsin receive state tax dollars to teach students and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction confirmed 48 new private schools applied to participate in the statewide voucher program in the last year alone.

While not every voucher school participating in Wisconsin Parental Choice Program are discriminatory, RCCS is only one of the many religious schools in Wisconsin receiving taxpayer money while openly practicing anti-LGBTQ+ policies. 

In fact, Rock County Christian is one of at least 700 religious schools in nearly 30 states in America currently receiving public money while openly advertising and practicing anti-LGBTQ+ policies, according to an investigation by HuffPost.

Roughly 14 percent of religious schools in these programs have policies that disparage homosexuality or outright bar LGBTQ+ students from admission, according to the same report.

Abundant Life Christian School, one of the largest private schools in the Madison area, also became a recent member of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program this past year.

Director of Elementary and School Relations Barbara Weirs expressed that Abundant Life originally held back from the program, as they wanted to be sure it wouldn’t compromise the school or its Christian values.

“We are allowed to be who we are, and we are unabashedly a Christian school,” Weirs said.

But after watching the program grow in recent years, Abundant Life was sure joining would allow them to remain a true Christian school while accepting state dollars. 

“We don’t silo God to chapel. We don’t silo God to the Bible classroom. Everything we do, every moment of the day, we want to have our Christian faith lived out loud,” Weirs shared.

The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program also allowed Abundant Life to keep the gender and sexuality portion of their Statement of Faith. 

“We believe that there are two genders, that they were predetermined by God, there’s male and female, as declared by Him,” Weirs stated. “We believe that marriage is ordained by God, and that it is to be between a man and a woman. And again, we take from the biblical principles of that.”

Looking forward

In February, Gov. Tony Evers called for a cap on the number of students who can use publicly-funded vouchers to attend private schools. 

"We have to fully fund our public schools, and we have to make sure voucher schools are accountable and transparent, not just for kids and parents, but for Wisconsin taxpayers, too," Evers said in a statement.

In addition to freezing voucher enrollments, Evers proposed a plan in February 2019 to create new minimum standards for teacher licensing and formal recognition for private schools.

Until these proposed measures go into effect, current voucher schools are able to continue to be a place of discrimination and exclusion.

Mead proposed a different approach should be made to ensure that voucher schools operate in a more inclusive manner, arguing they should abide by the same anti-discriminatory laws that other publicly-funded institutions already follow. 

“There need to be non-negotiables that relate to the values of public dollars,” she said. “If we’re taxing the entire public, in order to create a public benefit, then the entire public, in my view, should be able to participate in that benefit.” 

AJ, who now identifies as non-binary, serves as vice president of their new school’s gender and sexuality alliance after transferring to the public school for sophomore year.

They shared they met the first gay person they ever knew while attending RCCS. And while they didn’t know everything about themselves at that point, meeting him allowed them to think about their own identity and helped them learn more about the LGBTQ+ community.

“I think being there actually made me more sympathetic to LGBT issues because I saw how they were mistreated in a place that tries to pride itself on being a loving and accepting community,” AJ shared. “I find that the LGBT community is so much more loving and accepting than any super organized religion I’ve experienced.”

“I’m proud to advocate for my community,” they said. 

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