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James Bush III: Inflicting pain on Florida’s most disadvantaged students is no way to make progress

I can understand impatience in the fight for freedom.

It is beyond reckless for anyone seeking change, no matter how righteous they think their cause may be, to inflict pain on the innocent and use that pain as leverage. But that’s exactly what we saw happen in Florida in recent weeks, and it is beyond irresponsible for newspaper editorial boards or anybody else to encourage it.

At issue was a campaign to bully corporate donors into ending their contributions to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves 100,000 low-income students, most of them black and Hispanic. I have over 2,600 of them in my district alone — less than 1% are white, and their average household incomes are less than $22,000. The people behind this effort said they wanted to change policies they deem discriminatory against LGBTQ students at a small percentage of private schools. But when they couldn’t persuade lawmakers to take up their cause, they resorted to pressuring donors by riling up Twitter trolls.

A handful of donors did leave, resulting in fewer scholarships for all students. The fear was very real that even more donors would do so, not because of the facts, but because of the madness ginned up by mobs. These mobs were willing to jeopardize tens of thousands of scholarships that have proven to be lifelines for the most disadvantaged students in this state, including LGBTQ students. Incredibly, the mobs had the gall to wrap themselves in the mantle of social justice.

I’ve been fighting for social justice my whole life. Pressuring one set of innocents – donors – into throwing another set of innocents under the bus – scholarship students – is not social justice. That’s why I and three other Democratic state representatives joined 150 black and Hispanic faith leaders from all over the state in the Capitol last week to protest these efforts. “We will not sit by while politicians try to snuff out the dreams” of our children, said Pastor Robert Ward of St. Petersburg. “Find solutions that do not involve denying opportunities to desperate families,” said U.S. Congressman Al Lawson, also a Democrat.

The day after the Capitol rally, my friend and colleague, Rep. Shevrin Jones – who is gay, black, a Democrat and a Christian – publicly called on cooler heads to prevail. He called on companies not to withdraw.

Companies don’t fund schools; they fund student scholarships. Companies have no say in where families choose to use the scholarships. The scholarship program itself does not discriminate against any students or families, period. The only criteria for eligibility is income. In the program’s 19-year-history, there hasn’t been a single case reported to the state of anti-LGBTQ discrimination at any of the 1,800 private schools with scholarship students. Once Fifth Third Bank—the only company to drop giving over $1 million annually—understood all of this, they quickly came back in the program.

It’s not hard to find examples of LGBTQ students who endured horrific bullying in public schools, and who found safe haven thanks to school choice. Elijah Robinson, a scholarship student who is now at a faith-based school in Jacksonville, has bravely shared his story of how bullying over his sexual identity in his prior school pushed him to the edge. “A school choice scholarship,” he said at the Capitol, “saved my life.”

To the extent that some private schools have policies regarding LGBTQ students that some find troubling, there is no quick fix. The folks who keep insisting there is are doing an incredible disservice. What we are seeing in Florida and across America is a clash of freedoms – of religious liberty, of emerging LGBTQ rights, of parental choice – that will take time for the courts to sort.

I can understand impatience in the fight for freedom. But what I can’t understand is anybody who has convinced themselves that it is OK to use low-income kids as pawns. We can make progress without resorting to the indefensible. In fact, there is no other way.

 ___

James Bush III is a Democrat who represents House District 109 and is a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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