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Bank that halted Florida voucher donations over anti-LGBTQ policies reverses course

Fifth Third Bank said in a statement that it has conducted a “comprehensive review” of the program, which assured the company they could continue their support of the program while “adhering to our core values.”
MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE   |   Times
Pride preparations are well underway in St. Petersburg, with rainbow flags flying in front of local businesses or in shop windows, as well as art installations and other decorations. June 19, 2018.  [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times (2018)]
MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times Pride preparations are well underway in St. Petersburg, with rainbow flags flying in front of local businesses or in shop windows, as well as art installations and other decorations. June 19, 2018. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2018)]
Published Feb. 7
Updated Feb. 7

TALLAHASSEE — One of the first companies to announce it would pull donations to Florida’s private school voucher program following reports of anti-LGBTQ policies at some of the participating schools reversed course Friday.

Fifth Third Bank issued a statement that after a “comprehensive review” it was “assured that students and their families make the decision as to which schools best fit the individual student’s educational needs. The choice is entirely up to them.”

“As a result of this thorough review and evaluation of the program, we believe that we can continue to support it, while adhering to our core values," the statement said.

The bank also said it requested changes be made by one of the nonprofits that administers the vouchers, AAA. Although Step Up for Students administers the vast majority of the vouchers for low-income students under the program, AAA hands out a small number and accepts corporations’ tax-deductible donations as well.

Fifth Third Bank said that AAA has agreed to “update its program guidelines" to better inform parents about the schools they select for their children to attend, including developing a way for parents to “access school-specific information or policies.”

The nonprofit has also agreed to meet with Fifth Third Bank once a year so the bank can “assess the program.”

Backers of the program from both parties celebrated the reversal as a victory. Since companies began pulling contributions, some supporters said withdrawn donations were a threat to the low-income, mostly minority students who receive the vouchers to attend private schools.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who had waded into the debate all the way from Washington D.C. during the impeachment drama to shame Fifth Third Bank for its withdrawal, said Friday that the bank was “putting students and their families above destructive identity politics.”

“It shows people can raise their voice and overcome the insane ‘woke’ agenda that drives our politics and culture," he said.

“I want to thank Fifth Third Bank for once again participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. Thanks for breaking the school-to-prison pipeline that has left far too many of our low-income black and Hispanic students with bleak futures,” tweeted Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton, D-St. Petersburg.

READ MORE: Can this lawmaker broker the peace in Florida’s anti-LGBTQ school voucher fight?

Fifth Third Bank, which is based in Ohio, was the first of a recent batch of companies that pulled their donations from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. The participating companies make the contributions in lieu of some of their taxes that would otherwise go to the state.

An Orlando Sentinel investigation found 83 of the religious private schools that accept the vouchers have policies that explicitly bar LGBTQ students from attending.

That news prompted the companies to withdraw their support, and also sparked what has become a fast-moving controversy that has exposed rifts based on politics, identity and race.

Friday’s announcement raises the question of whether Fifth Third Bank’s reversal will prompt other companies, some of which support local Pride parades, to also follow suit.

Two progressive Democrats from Orlando, both of whom are known for their advocacy of equal rights, said that the bank’s reversal doesn’t change their efforts to make sure the program has concrete protections against discrimination.

“Unfortunately under current law, the state of Florida cannot guarantee that a child or family won’t face discrimination for being LGBTQ via our school choice programs," said Rep. Anna Eskamani. “And that’s why a change of state policy is necessary, and that’s why we’re actively discussing the issue with Step Up for Students and the Department of Education."

She filed a bill to prohibit voucher schools from discriminating, which hasn’t been heard. Opponents have said it’s unconstitutional because it violates private schools’ religious liberty.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said more needs to be done.

“It has become clear that companies are being given private assurances that change is happening,” he said. “We need to continue to work together to ensure those changes actually materialize so we can ensure voucher-funded private schools are open to all students.”

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