A week after exiting a scholarship program for economically disadvantaged children over what it cited as anti-LGBTQ policies at a handful of private schools, Fifth Third Bank announced this morning it will continue supporting the program.
“We have looked at the annual performance evaluation mandated by the state of Florida, spoken to policymakers and community leaders in Florida and other constituencies, and held detailed conversations with AAA management about the program. Importantly, we have been 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,” the bank announced in a press release.
The bank contributed $5.4 million last year to AAA Scholarship Foundation to fund scholarships for low-income students under the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. The bank reconsidered its position after the program came under fire from LGBTQ advocates following an Orlando Sentinel story that claimed 83 schools had policies that would prohibit LGBTQ students from enrolling.
At least one school had already come forward announcing it no longer discriminated against LGBTQ students.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program serves 108,570 economically disadvantaged students this year. Of the students, 71 percent are black, Hispanic or mixed race and more than half live in single parent households. The average household income of participating students is just 8 percent above the poverty level. Once students are awarded scholarships, their parents or guardians are free to choose among more than 2,000 approved private schools.
Currently, 1,836 private schools enroll one or more students through the tax credit scholarship program.
Elijah Robinson, an LGBTQ student attending a faith-based Christian school in Jacksonville, spoke at a press conference earlier this week organized by the Florida African American Ministers Alliance. The 18-year-old told an audience of more than 200 faith leaders, educators and families that he had been bullied over his sexuality at his prior public school. At the press event Elijah said the scholarship saved his life.
Robinson thanked Fifth Third Bank in a press release issued by the ministers alliance this morning.
“All I can say is wow, and thank you,” Elijah wrote. “This means more students like me will be able to find safe schools where they can be who they are and focus on learning.”
Robert Ward, chairman of the ministers alliance and pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, said he was “overjoyed” to see Fifth third Bank return to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.
Civil rights icon H.K. Matthews, who also appeared at the news conference, said the bank’s decision will restore hope to parents across the state who thought the lifelines to a better life for their children were being cut away.
“We cannot thank them enough,” Matthews said.
Another member of the ministers alliance, Luis Vega, founder of The Way Christian Academy in Tampa, also expressed thanks.
“We are grateful to Fifth Third Bank for putting the interests of thousands of low-income students firs,” Vega said. “The company’s contributions have been a game changer for our most vulnerable children, and it is just amazing to hear that they will resume.”
Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and is one of the fundraisers for the tax-credit scholarship, issued a statement noting the organization is dedicated to providing scholarships to disadvantaged Florida students to attend the school of their choice.
“We believe 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,” Step Up officials said in the statement.