For Tristan, access to the "secret gay society" allowed him to finally accept his sexuality, when the only message he'd received up to that point was that it was sinful and wrong. "I won't come out to my family because they think that homosexuals should be lined up and shot. My mom thinks they're an abomination, and my stepdad thinks we have a disease, like a neurological disorder that can't be passed on." Before he learned that other kids at his school were gay too, Tristan would have agreed that something was truly and disturbingly wrong with his attraction to other boys. "For a while, I did think that I was sick. I thought my brain was messed up, and I was thinking about going to ask my mom to take me to the doctor or something and get medicine. And then, before I even got the chance, I got that message."
We're in God's country here, a land where steeples rise up beyond the strip malls and people bless you when you sneeze, and half the radio stations seem devoted to affirming one's quotidian engagement with a personal lord and savior. As the rest of the nation edges ever closer to demanding equal rights for LGBTQ citizens and legalizing same-sex marriage, it's no surprise that the conservative Christians who dominate this landscape would hold tight to an issue that has become a rallying point in their war against the culture of tolerance, or that students like Tristan, Jason and Emily would get caught in the cross hairs – able to find acceptance in a network of peers and yet "terrified," as Jason puts it, to reveal their full identity to authority figures around them. But what does come as a surprise is that despite an explicit anti-gay program, their school benefits from diverted public funds while its LGBTQ students must hide their sexualities and live in constant fear of condemnation and rejection.
Georgia, along with 11 other states (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, Rhode Island, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, New Hampshire, Louisiana and, most recently, Alabama), has adopted laws – sometimes referred to as "neovouchers" – to grant dollar-for-dollar tax credits to people who donate money to provide children with scholarships to private schools. In theory, such a plan has the potential to help a lot of students, but in practice, especially in deeply religious places like Georgia, it has also meant that millions of dollars have been redirected from public funds to privately run Student Scholarship Organizations, which can then funnel the money to schools with strict anti-gay policies. Because the money goes straight to the SSO and never actually enters the public coffers, it's free and clear of being considered a "public fund" – allowing church and state to technically be kept separate. All of which may sound fishy, but consider this: It's fully legal because the laws make it so. And, as the school-choice movement gains ground, it's certain that other states will soon pass similar legislation.
It's unlikely, however, that any of these laws will be as freewheeling as Georgia's, where conservative Christian schools constitute the largest segment of private schools in the state. Georgia House Bill 1133, which introduced the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit, is the only SSO legislation in the country that was formulated without requiring organizations to take family income into account when choosing who will receive a scholarship, nor does it keep track of who gets them. A 2011 amendment makes it a criminal offense to disclose who donates SSO money, how much they donate, or which schools receive these donations, making any knowledge about where the money goes so shrouded in mystery that the Society of Professional Journalists awarded HB 1133 the Black Hole Award, for "the most heinous violations of the public's right to know."
Nevertheless, after the law went into effect, more than $230 million in tax credits have been awarded to taxpayers in Georgia who have made SSO donations. And since at least 115 private schools affiliated with SSOs in the state have explicit anti-gay policies or belong to associations that condemn homosexuality, it's clear that much of that money has gone to private schools that consider homosexuality not only a sin but also a perversion from which the rest of their students must be shielded. Meanwhile, two of the seven agencies that grant private schools accreditation promote an anti-gay sentiment.
That the schools have come to rely on this money is apparent in the aggressive way they go after it, imploring parents to take full advantage of the SSO program before the cap is reached and it's too late. A flier from North Cobb Christian School stated in bold print, "If only half of our families contributed the maximum credit allowed, NCCS would qualify for $750,000 in additional financial-aid funds!" Elsewhere, the flier reminds parents that this money can "free up funds from our normal financial-aid pool."
Unsurprisingly, SSO laws have received staunch criticism from outlets that see them as a means of helping children who need it the least at the expense of those who could truly benefit. In Georgia, the most vocal opponent has been the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes better educational opportunities for underprivileged youth. After HB 1133 was passed in 2008, the SEF began closely reviewing the legislation. "We started looking at the law to see if we could become a Student Scholarship Organization," says vice president Steve Suitts. What the SEF found instead was that the law's wording allowed for too much potential abuse. "It may have been sold to the public as a way in which to help low-income kids get a last chance at a good education, but it was not in fact designed for that," Suitts says. "It was designed in order to simply start building a publicly funded, publicly supported private-school system in the state."
Which is particularly problematic to Suitts when he considers both the implications for gay youth and the statistics pertaining to school segregation. As of the latest data, from 2010, only 10 percent of white students in Georgia's public-education system attend a virtually segregated school (in which white students constitute at least 90 percent of the overall school population); yet for white students attending a private school affiliated with an SSO, that number rose to 53 percent. Kick LGBTQ kids out of the equation, and the school population only becomes more and more homogenous – at the expense of millions of dollars that could be going into the public-school system. The SEF has therefore lobbied extensively for legislative changes and filed petitions before the Department of Revenue to counteract the SSO laws. In a small victory this spring, the state amended the law, forcing SSOs to consider wealth disparity. But in the same vote, the Assembly raised the annual cap from $51 million to $58 million.
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