Last week, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank announced they no longer would donate to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which enables more than 108,000 low-income children and children in foster care to receive scholarships to attend a safe and effective school of choice.
The move comes after the Orlando Sentinel published a piece suggesting that $105 million in tax credit scholarships had been used by families to pay tuition at faith-based schools that, as The Federalist’s Joy Pullmann put it, “uphold their faiths’ historic sexual ethics.”
Businesses that contribute to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations in the state can receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, and eligible children receive scholarships averaging $6,100 per year to attend a private school of choice. The program is capped at $873.5 million this school year.
The tax credit scholarship program, established in 2003, provides scholarships to children from households whose average income is below $25,000 per year, more than half of whom are from single-parent families.
Although the program helps some of the least-advantaged children in the state, Fifth Third Bank said it would halt its participation until “more inclusive policies have been adopted by all participating schools.”
The decision to suspend financial support for the program—the largest school choice program in the country—came after the Orlando Sentinel reviewed policies of more than 1,000 participating private religious schools and determined that 156 “have policies that say gay and transgender students can be denied enrollment or expelled or that explain the school opposes their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.”
Florida state Rep. Carlos Smith, who had prodded the bank to cease donations because the values of some participating schools “rubbed me the wrong way,” applauded the decision “to stop promoting a program that supports bigotry.”
Smith and other opponents of the program, along with businesses that have withdrawn their support, would limit educational opportunities for low-income children to attend a wide range of private religious and secular schools out of concerns that some families might select faith-based schools that have a traditional view of marriage.
The action could jeopardize the ability of students to attend a range of faith-based schools, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools.
Opponents of the program seem keen to exclude the traditional views of Christians, Jews, and Muslims by denying them access to the same benefits available to all other families and allowing them to choose faith-based schools only if those schools do not hold traditional views of Scripture.
But part of living in a free society that encourages pluralism is the concept of freedom of association. Americans can disagree over issues such as sexual morality. They have a long tradition of sending their children to schools that reflect their faith, morals, and priorities.
If we eliminate schools that specialize, we don’t expand options for families, we diminish the variety of options available.
Demanding that an all-girls school take boys doesn’t expand access to an all-girls school for boys, it eliminates the ability of girls to attend an all-girls school.
Fundamentally, parents have a variety of legitimate views about what constitutes a good education and often rank values-based instruction as a top priority when searching for a school. Families select private schools that fit with their values and provide the type of morals, values, and character development they’re looking for.
Contrast that with public schools, which are taxpayer funded, and which can impose curriculum that is counter to the desires of families, leveraging taxpayer money to instruct students on sensitive issues such as sexual orientation and gender identity, in some cases against parents’ wishes.
Yet some lawmakers want to prevent private money from being used to support families who want to educate their children according to their own values and beliefs.
Moreover, scholarships are awarded to students regardless of sexual orientation, and participating private schools must comply with the anti-discrimination provisions contained in Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.
Finally, it is worth noting that the program is entirely privately funded, and does not represent “state funding,” as some have argued.
Private businesses contribute to private nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that provide private scholarships to individual students to attend a private school of choice. The money never goes through the state.
Importantly, participating families think highly of the program, with 92% expressing satisfaction and 89% reporting they are “completely satisfied.”
Nearly 90% of families say they are satisfied with their scholarship school, and 71% of participating families reported they would likely have to return to a public school if it weren’t for the scholarship program.
Indeed, for the past 17 years, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program has operated beautifully, serving the needs of poor and minority children across the Sunshine State. Those are the children who will be hurt the most by this decision.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal