By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Monday a decision by Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank to pull contributions to a Florida school-voucher program is a “publicity stunt aimed at earning wokeness points with the radical left.”
The banks announced last week that they would stop sending money to nonprofit organizations that administer the program after an Orlando Sentinel investigation found at least 156 private schools that took state-funded scholarships had anti-gay views or policies.
The newspaper found 83 of the schools refused to admit LGBTQ students or could expel them if their sexual orientations or gender identities were disclosed.
The report has sparked a heated debate among Florida state lawmakers, with some arguing private schools should not have written policies against LGBTQ students and others arguing in favor of religious freedom.
Rubio, a Republican who served as Florida House speaker before getting elected to the U.S. Senate, inserted himself into the debate Monday. He slammed the banks for hurting low-income students who benefit from Florida’s school-choice programs. Under the programs, students can use the vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools.
“(The banks) aren’t punishing the small handful of schools whose policies they don’t like. They are punishing the thousands of underprivileged parents and students who may lose the chance to attend a school they otherwise couldn’t afford,” Rubio said in a statement.
State Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who is running for Congress this year, has also launched attacks on social media against state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is calling on the Florida Department of Education to ban written policies that single out gay students.
“Religious liberty is constitutionally protected everywhere! You want equality regardless of religious liberty. This is why you’re targeting donors of the scholarship program and hurting poor families in the process,” Donalds tweeted Sunday.
Smith, who is gay, tweeted Sunday he disagrees with people who “insist religious freedom and respect for LGBTQ students cannot co-exist.”
Ryan Petty, who Gov. Ron DeSantis recently appointed to the State Board of Education, has also jumped in on the debate, accusing the Orlando Sentinel reports of being “anti-school choice activists.”
“It’s just a coordinated attack on school choice, religious freedom & the most vulnerable & deserving students. It’s bigotry carefully packaged as tolerance,” tweeted Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Meanwhile, the Florida African American Ministers Alliance is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol to “denounce attacks” on the scholarship program, a press release said.
The debate centers on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is a major part of the state’s school-choice system. Under the program, businesses receive tax credits for contributing money to nonprofit organizations that, in turn, provide scholarships to students to attend private schools.
Step Up for Students, one of the two nonprofit organizations that helps administer the program, told The News Service of Florida last week the organization has seen “no evidence” of students being denied enrollment or expelled from private schools “due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Regardless, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank said last week they have taken the time to review the matter and decided to stop contributing to the school choice program.
Wells Fargo said that after reviewing the matter “carefully” it decided to no longer support Step Up for Students.
“All of us at Wells Fargo highly value diversity and inclusion, and we oppose discrimination of any kind,” Rosanna Fiske, a spokeswoman for the bank, said in a statement.
Fifth Third Bank did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a tweet last week the bank said it stands with LGBTQ students and parents and will stop contributing to the school-voucher program.
Patrick Gibbons, a spokesman for Step Up for Students, said Fifth Third Bank is not a donor to Step Up for Students. He said the bank is a donor to AAA Scholarship Foundation, another organization that helps the state administer vouchers. AAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The impact the banks are having on Florida’s school-voucher program remains unclear.
In the last year, though, Gibbons said decisions by companies to pull contributions has cut down on the number of scholarships that can be distributed.
For instance, Rosen Hotels & Resorts stopped contributing last year. The hotel chain’s last contribution of $150,000 provided 20 vouchers to students through the Tax Credit Scholarship program, Gibbons said.
In the 2019-20 school year, there were 108,570 vouchers funded through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.