TALLAHASSEE — The debate over anti-LGBTQ policies in Florida’s private school voucher program spilled into the national arena this week when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio entered the fray.
Rubio said two banks, Fifth Third and Wells Fargo, announced they are halting future donations to the school voucher program for low-income students to take part in a “publicity stunt aimed at earning ‘wokeness’ points with the radical left.”
“They aren’t punishing the small handful of schools whose policies they don’t like,” Rubio said Monday. “They are punishing the thousands of underprivileged parents and students who may lose the chance to attend a school they otherwise couldn’t afford.”
Although Rubio’s comments were specifically a call-out of two major corporations, the jabs also epitomized a metastasizing controversy undermining one of the GOP’s most beloved educational programs, steering corporate tax money to private school tuition for low-income students.
Since the early news broke at the end of last week of Fifth Third Bank and Wells Fargo’s withdrawal of financial support, at least three other companies have also said they are pulling their donations to one of Florida’s private school voucher programs. However, two of the companies, Wells Fargo and Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing, hadn’t donated to the voucher program in recent years. Wells Fargo had been giving Step Up a $10,000 annual check for a separate purpose, which a company spokesperson said it is discontinuing because of this news.
These announcements were made after an Orlando Sentinel investigation of 1,000 private religious schools that accepted the vouchers for low-income students. The investigation found that 83 of these schools have policies explicitly barring LGBTQ students, or, sometimes, the children of LGBTQ parents, from attending. Seventy-three additional schools have material that say being gay or transgender was sinful, according to the Sentinel’s report.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program allows companies to donate money to Step Up for Students, a nonprofit, which are then deducted from those companies' taxes. Step Up is the primary group that administers the scholarships to low-income students to pay for private school tuition, all of which is laid out in state law.
But because the companies' donations would have otherwise gone into state coffers as taxes, opponents of the program have long argued they are state-funded vouchers which only avoid touching the state's bank account as a technicality.
State Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith, both Orlando Democrats, have singled out companies that donate to the program on Twitter, especially those like Fifth Third Bank that also participate in Pride parades in support of LGBTQ rights. Eskamani has filed a bill, House Bill 45, which would prohibit any private school accepting state-supported vouchers to discriminate against any student.
“We filed our bill in August to address this, to prevent more companies from pulling out. We filed our bill when Harris Rosen of Rosen (Hotels & Resorts) pulled out, and we were ignored by leadership,” Eskamani said, referencing an Orlando-based hotel chain that announced it was pulling donations from the program after an earlier story by the Sentinel.
"The sad reality is that for many of the state's leaders, they just dismissed this problem as not being a real problem until money was on the line."
But the pair’s activism on this issue has also made them a target of Republicans, who in recent days have argued that gay or transgender students should use their vouchers at schools that accept them for who they are, and that schools with anti-LGBTQ policies have the right to religious liberty, even if that essentially discriminates against certain types of students.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who is running for Congress, went a step further. He tweeted at Smith that "in your quest for perfect equality, you and (Eskamani) are destroying the liberty of poor parents to find an environment for their kids using the donations of corporations."
Step Up for Students declined to provide the dollar figure or exact number of vouchers at risk by the loss in donations. Patrick Gibbons, spokesman for the group, would only say that "thousands ... are at risk of losing the opportunity to attend the school of their choice." Gibbons also noted that three-fourths of the voucher recipients are black or Hispanic with the average household income around $25,000.
Eskamani said people who blame her for the controversy are giving her “way too much credit.”
"The notion that a freshman Democrat has the ability to do that is ignoring the facts. The facts are that discrimination is a problem ... and companies don't like it," Eskamani said.
Step Up has tried deflecting criticism, adding a statement on their website’s home page that said the group believes “all children deserve the opportunity to attend a school that best fits their needs — especially our most vulnerable students who are lower-income, victims of bullying, have unique abilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ.”
Additionally, Gibbons said some private schools have already been "quietly changing their policies," without intervention from the state, but did not provide a number of schools that have done so.
Florida Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who is also the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said he agrees that schools should change any anti-LGBTQ policies, but said it's not possible for the state to require it.
Gruters sponsored a bill in 2019 that would have made it illegal for employers to fire someone just because they were LGBTQ, saying it was in the best interest of Florida’s economy.
"We can't have a single bill that's going to violate the religious liberty clause because it's unconstitutional. It's just a non-starter," he said. "We're not causing this issue, we're not ringing the bell. I think there are a lot of people trying to score political points rather than passing good policy."
But Eskamani said she’s already sought legal advice on that front. She consulted with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who found that attaching conditions to a state-supported program, such as prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ kids, does not violate private schools’ religious freedom.
She said the fact that Step Up added the statement to its website and some schools are changing their policies — while her bill is being attacked — shows how "polar opposite things are happening" at once.
"And that's dishonest, because I think if we're all working toward a solution we should be proactively talking about that," she said. "The fact you have Sen. Marco Rubio flaming culture wars right now ... it definitely seems driven to distract the public."
This issue — an unexpected twist in the 2020 legislative session — doesn’t appear to be winding down anytime soon.
A news conference held Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol featured a large group of students currently receiving the Florida Tax Credit scholarship, as well black lawmakers from both parties and members of the Florida African American Ministers Alliance. They accused Eskamani and Smith of creating an artificial firestorm, saying the policies were not actually resulting in students getting expelled for being gay or trans — and real students could lose their scholarships as a result.
One LGBTQ student, Elijah Robinson of Jacksonville, said he was bullied in public schools and used a voucher to move to a private school.
“A school choice scholarship saved my life,” he said.
Another representative of Florida in Washington, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, also expressed dismay about the controversy on Tuesday, saying in a statement that was read during the news conference that it amounts to “political gamesmanship.” Lawson is on the governance board for Step Up.
“I urge you to stand down and find solutions that do not involve denying opportunities to desperate families," he said.