choice for most

Choice for most: In nation’s largest voucher program, $16 million went to schools with anti-LGBT policies

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

The school’s admissions policy has made Lighthouse the focus of an intensifying national debate: whether private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should be able to receive taxpayer dollars.

But as that debate heats up, it’s been unclear how many schools have policies like Lighthouse’s.

Chalkbeat tried to find out. In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

“These findings are likely an understatement,” said Steve Suitts, a professor who has researched discrimination against LGBT students in Georgia’s voucher program.

However, Chalkbeat did not find public, discriminatory policies at the vast majority of schools. In fact, many had rules in place to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Legally speaking, private schools are allowed to turn away LGBT students — and many voucher proponents say it’s important to provide families with the option to attend schools that can instill students with their religious values.

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools, and no statewide voucher programs offer their own protections based on sexual orientation. (Students are typically protected from discrimination based on race and national origin.)

But as DeVos pushes for a national expansion of voucher programs, she’s sent mixed messages about discrimination. It’s wrong “in any form,” she’s said. But when grilled by senators on the issue in June, she used the same response 14 times: “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”

By the numbers

As of May, 302 schools are eligible to accept vouchers in Indiana. Of the 27 schools that have anti-LGBT policies, 19 state that they can either refuse to admit or expel students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.

Six schools require parents to affirm that “homosexual behavior,” among other items, “is sinful and offensive to God,” and two schools limited students’ bathroom use to their biological sex.

The vast majority of Indiana’s private schools accepting vouchers do not mention gender or sexuality in their school policies or handbooks. For over 60 schools that don’t share either of those documents online, Chalkbeat reached out to discuss their policies.

Another 27 schools offer specific protections for LGBT students. (Explore policies by school, county and city here.)

Policies in practice

Victory Christian Academy in Northwest Indiana is among the schools that publicly shares an explicitly discriminatory admissions policy. It received $630,000 for enrolling 160 students using vouchers last school year.

The school’s handbook states that it reserves the right to refuse admission to or remove a student “if the atmosphere or the conduct within a particular home or the activities of the student” crosses certain lines, including LGBT activity.

However, a former administrator at Victory said that no students had ever been turned away because of their sexuality. He described the policy as a warning meant to reduce conflict.

“We’re not trying to block anyone from our school,” said Tony Clymer. “We’re just trying to stay in the affirmative what kind of school we are, what we hold to be near and dear.”

“If that doesn’t match with your family,” he added, “we’d rather know up front rather than for your student to be here or you to be here and find out later.”

Administrators at Lakeland Christian Academy, which has a policy similar to Victory’s, told Chalkbeat — and Lighthouse previously told the Indianapolis Star — that their school had never refused admission to a student because they identified as LGBT.

Enrollment at these institutions is often framed as entering into a mutual agreement, such that the students attending them are on board with every aspect of the school’s mission.

“It’s our role to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christ-like. If your goal is not to become more Christ-like, this school doesn’t make sense,” Clymer said. “It would be like sending your child to a magnet school for the arts when your child has no desire to be in the arts.”

What happens if a student who is already enrolled begins to question their sexuality or gender?

Joy Lavender, an administrator at Lakeland last year, said a guidance counselor would talk with the student and that the school would contact their parents to determine a course of action.

“Our goal here at Lakeland is not necessarily, ‘You do something wrong, you’re kicked out,’” Lavender said. “Our reason for expulsion for any kind of infraction is because we feel like that student is not able to be restored or that they’re not salvageable or they’re very negative about the things we believe in.”

Lavender noted that students at Lakeland have questioned their sexuality, but “it never became an issue, so they graduated from here.”

The mentality is the same at Victory, where Clymer said students question their sexuality “every year, all the time.” The school’s response is to encourage students to take on their role found in the Bible, which is defined as as entering into a marriage between a man and a woman.

Guiding principles

Lakeland, Lighthouse and Victory Christian Academies have something else in common: their accreditation.

More than half of schools — 14 out of 27 — with anti-LGBT policies were accredited by Association of Christian Schools International, which has more than 3,000 member schools in the U.S. The pro school-choice group provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

See for yourself: A side-by-side comparison of ACSI’s suggested policy and one of its member schools’ policy on LGBT students.

The book suggests that schools say they may refuse admissions to or expel a student for “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity.” In most cases, ACSI member schools used the same wording.

The handbook also recommends that schools ask for a reference from a pastor. If “a parent of a young child indicates that he or she is in a homosexual lifestyle,” it advises school officials to tell the parent that their child will be denied admission.

If a school and a student reach an “impasse” regarding sexual orientation or gender identity issues, the handbook recommends the school “disenroll,” rather than expel, the student to avoid legal problems.

Despite the book’s advice, ACSI’s director of legal and legislative issues said he hoped schools are a safe place for kids questioning their sexuality.

“We’d want them to know that they could talk to their teachers or their school leaders about these things and they would be able to help them,” said Tom Cathey.

Thirty-three of ACSI’s member schools are eligible to receive vouchers next fall, making it the second-largest religious accrediting group among schools in Indiana’s voucher program. The largest religious accreditor in Indiana is the National Catholic Education Association, with 110 schools — and the group takes a different approach when it comes to LGBT students.

None of NCEA’s member schools shared anti-LGBT policies on their websites, and 12 of its schools offered protections for LGBT students in the form of anti-bullying or anti-harassment policies. (The group’s director of public relations, Margaret Kaplow, said the NCEA “does not lobby for or against policy of any kind.”)

Roncalli High School is one of NCEA’s schools to offer its LGBT students protections. The Indianapolis Catholic school’s anti-harassment policy states, “No racist, sexist or homophobic expression, language or behavior will be tolerated.”

Its co-director of guidance, Shelly Fitzgerald, said Roncalli aims to provide a positive environment for all students, including those who identify as LGBT.

“We counsel all kids the same, in terms of relationships, things that they go through — heterosexual or bisexual or questioning,” Fitzgerald said. If students aren’t comfortable talking with guidance counselors, she said, they can be referred to the school’s social worker or outside support groups, such as Indiana Youth Group.

Still, there are restrictions at some of NCEA’s member schools on how open students can be about their sexual orientation. Three define students’ dates as members of the opposite sex when they discuss school dances or prom in their handbooks.

Ambiguity and politics

The vast majority of schools in Indiana don’t mention LGBT students in their policies.

Suitts said he thinks recent media focus has pushed headmasters and school boards to be less clear on this front.

“Before, there was a greater tendency of headmasters to be verbal or forthcoming even if they didn’t have an explicit policy about whether they would accept gay students,” Suitts said. “But the Supreme Court decision and litigation, the whole discussion that’s going on, has made them much more obtuse on this issue publicly.”

However, supporters of school choice say that different belief systems are what make school choice important — even if some students are left out.

“I find it abhorrent that there are schools that say that children who themselves are gay are not welcome there,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice. “But if we believe in a pluralist system, then there’s got to be room — again, for what I may find abhorrent — to be a part of that, if we believe it’s important for parents, especially low-income and working class parents, to get to have a choice.”

Suzanne Eckes, a professor who has researched discrimination in private school voucher programs, said that allowing some schools to discriminate against LGBT students on the basis of religion is no different than racial discrimination.

“People say just don’t apply to one of those schools,” Eckes said. “And that doesn’t sit well with me, because we made the same argument in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s about black kids.”

Although DeVos has promised to unveil a national school choice initiative, it falls on states to decide whether private schools receiving public funds can discriminate based on sexual orientation — a decision, the education secretary has argued, that should continue to be made at the local level.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.