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.
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.