Florida lawmakers, LGBTQ, education choice advocates meet to find common ground in tax credit scholarship controversy

Lisa Buie

Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill was among leaders who met Thursday to discuss solutions to the recent controversy surrounding the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.

A private meeting of leaders involved in a recent controversy over the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and the interests of LGBTQ, lower-income and minority students bore the characteristics of mutual respect, civility and a desire to determine the facts, the head of the state’s largest scholarship organization said Friday.

Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students, described the meeting as an opportunity to move past misleading, inflammatory rhetoric, replacing it with a calm, productive dialogue.

“I think the meeting was important because this group is interested in pausing for a little bit and having a non-emotional conversation and getting the facts,” he said. “There’s just a lot of misinformation out in the public, and that misinformation has stimulated a lot emotion.”

The meeting, held at the invitation of a couple of key lawmakers, included state Rep. Anna Eskamani and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, Democrats from Orlando who sponsored a bill that would prevent schools with policies they say are anti-LGBTQ from receiving the tax credit scholarships. The two lawmakers had participated in a social media campaign urging corporate donors to withdraw financial support for the program.

The campaign drew a strong response from a group of more than 100 African American and Hispanic pastors, who gathered at the Florida Capitol Tuesday to stand in support of the scholarship. Members of the Florida African American Ministers Alliance expressed concern that the lawmakers’ efforts were harming lower-income, mostly minority students whose lives were being transformed by the scholarships that offer an escape from failing schools. African American Democratic lawmakers Rep. James Bush III and Rep. Wengay Newton also spoke in support of the scholarships.

Two days later, Eskamani and Smith sat down with Tuthill and Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. Also in attendance was state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, a top-ranking member of the Democratic Caucus who earlier this week issued a statement urging program donors not to withhold funding from the tax credit scholarship program.

Nadine Smith

Tuthill said he found the discussion “refreshing” and praised Smith for being a fair minded, principled leader.

“Her role is going to be really important in all of this,” he said.

Tuthill predicted next steps will include reaching agreement on the facts of several very complex issues and continuing to build trust among stakeholders so that all voices can be heard.

He added that he’s heard this week from leaders representing business, religious and civil rights sectors. All have told him they are committed to ensuring every child has access to a safe and highly effective learning environment.

“Balancing a variety of liberties is challenging,” Tuthill said. “It’s always great when good leadership emerges from situations like this, and it’s great when it comes from various tribes.”

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