Earlier this week, Ohio-based Fifth Third Bank and California-based Wells Fargo said they would no longer donate money to organizations that administer the five programs in Florida that allow individuals and companies to donate money for student private/religious school scholarships in exchange for tax credits.
And it is possible other companies will do the same in coming days following the investigation by the Orlando Sentinel, which published results of an investigation into religious schools that receive money through “scholarships” funded by the state.
It reported that last year, 156 private Christian schools with anti-gay views received state money toward the tuition of more than 20,800 students, at a cost of more than $129 million. “That means at least 14 percent of Florida’s nearly 147,000 scholarship students last year attended private schools where homosexuality was condemned or, at a minimum, unwelcome,” the newspaper said
Florida allows companies that pay Florida corporate income tax to redirect up to 100 percent of their tax liability to one of two organizations permitted to administer the voucher programs: Step Up for Students and AAA Scholarship Foundation.
After being called out on Twitter by a state legislator, Fifth Third Bank tweeted that it would stop contributions until “more inclusive policies have been adopted by all participating schools.” It gave $5.4 million to AAA Scholarship Foundation last year, according to the Florida Business Journal.
Wells Fargo said in statement: “We have reviewed this matter carefully and have 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.”
A Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank had supported Step Up for Students in Florida in two ways: through philanthropic grants from 2016 through 2019 at $10,000 per year, plus tax credit scholarship investments, which it halted in 2014.
Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager for Step Up for Students, said in an email that in the 19-year history of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is one of Florida’s school choice programs, “neither Step Up nor the Florida [Department of Education] are aware of any systemic discrimination against scholarship students, including LGBTQ students.”
AAA Scholarship Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
The banks’ decisions come at a time of national debate over whether taxpayer money should fund religious education. The Supreme Court is considering a case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, in which plaintiffs are asking the justices to determine the constitutionality of more than 35 states’ bans on the use of public funds for religious purposes.
The court heard arguments in January, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in attendance. She is a longtime proponent of programs that allow the use of public money for religious and private education and is lobbying for a $5 billion federal tax-credit program that would fund scholarships for private and religious schools. The only federally funded school voucher program in the country is in the District of Columbia.
Florida spends more public money for private education than any other state. Its five programs serve more than 150,000 students in hundreds of private schools, most of them religious. These programs exist in the form of tax credits: Individuals and companies donate in exchange for tax deductions.
The Orlando Sentinel also found that some of the companies that donated to the program had pro-LGBTQ policies. Fifth Third Bank was one of them. State law does not require disclosure of who contributes to school tax-credit programs, so a full list is not publicly known, a point made by the Sentinel’s editorial board.
A Sentinel editorial highlighted five companies as having pro-LGBTQ policies while still contributing to the Florida voucher programs. It said:
If these companies truly believe in LGBTQ equality, they’ll make public statements declaring their intent to stop diverting the corporate taxes to private-school voucher programs if the Florida Legislature doesn’t fix the problem.
State Rep. Carlos G. Smith (D) took to Twitter about the issue, writing:
Companies have the same choice in front of them. People are watching to see what they do. Or what they don’t do.That means YOU @FifthThird bank. Marching in @OrlandoPride while also funding anti-LGBTQ schools is NOT okay!
Fifth Third Bank responded to Smith, tweeting back:
(Part 1) Thanks Rep. Smith for your feedback. We definitely stand with #LGBTQ students and parents. We have communicated with program officials that we will not be contributing again … (Part 2) … until more inclusive policies have been adopted by all participating schools to protect the sexual orientation of all our students. (And, we will see you at the next @OrlandoPride!)
DeVos would be delighted to see the Supreme Court rule that states can use public money for religious education, which is in line with her position that parents should be able to send their children to any school they want and that taxpayers should fund it.
Public education advocates oppose such use of public money, saying that it violates the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment and that it could devastate traditional public schools that educate most of the country’s schoolchildren.
Espinoza v. Montana centers on a 2015 law passed by the Montana legislature allowing families that send their children to private or religious school to receive tax credits — paid for by the public. The state’s Department of Revenue established a rule preventing implementation of the program, and some families that could not get tax credits sued the department. The case reached the Montana Supreme Court, which declared the program unconstitutional, and the plaintiffs took it to the U.S. Supreme Court.