School “Choice” Part II: Democrats About Face

Editors Note: Today we continue our three part series on School “Choice” legislation with part II. Part I can be found here.

The legacy of Bob Graham, Reuben Askew and most recently Lawton Chiles in fighting extreme right wing efforts to hijack our public schools was effectively undone not only by Jeb Bush and his minions but also with the help and complicity of  several completely spineless Democrats. It is one thing when African-American lawmakers buy into the premise that vouchers will help their communities. (For the record their is empirical data that it does not help their communities, just selected students, but that is a debate for another day.) It is a completely different issue when Democratic lawmakers representing districts where the majority of voters are against most voucher schemes vote repeatedly for voucher programs. Public opinion polls have shown that vouchers are especially unpopular with Florida’s white suburban voters, and are particularly disliked in heavily Jewish areas of southeast Florida. Yet several Democrats representing constituencies that clearly oppose voucher programs have voted for multiple voucher bills in the legislature.

The evolution of many Florida Democrats on the issue is striking. Former House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders did not cast one vote for voucher legislation in his first Legislative stint which ended in 1994. As one of the leading Democrats on budget and tax matters, Saunders actively supported the program pushed by Governor Chiles that brought more accountability and better public spending to Florida’s schools. The same can be said for Senator Gwen Margolis who served as Senate President during Chiles first two years as Governor. Two decades later, both Saunders and Margolis have a voting record on education matters that are more in line with the views of Rick Scott or Jeb Bush than the late Governor Chiles. As we will discuss in part III of this series, Saunders and other legislative Democrats have been large recipients of campaign cash from monied private companies backing vouchers. These backers include the right-wing titan DeVos family whose ownership of Amway and the Orlando Magic helped make them the largest  non-corporate contributors to the RNC in the 1980s and 1990s.

The number of  legislative Democrats who supported corporate tax credit vouchers grew from one to twenty-four between 2001 and 2011. This is especially interesting when you consider the Democratic caucuses was arguably more conservative on other issues in 2001 than in 2011.

In other states, Democrats have held firm against voucher programs. Democratic legislators from urban areas have worked to find solutions that involve improving public schools and even developing public-private partnerships under the framework of the public school system. Democrats and many Republicans from rural areas have cited the lack of available private schooling options outside large urbanized centers and have opposed vouchers instead working to improve public schools. But for some reason, Florida’s Democrats have become different, moving to the right on public education issues of the Democrats in the other 49 states and many Republicans throughout the country.

The willingness of many Democrats to accept personal contributions from John Kirtley, the public mouthpiece of the school voucher movement is stunning. We have seen in the recent past Democrats less willing to question campaign contributions and their source than some of their Republican counterparts. For example, I know of several Republicans who will not accept money from sugar companies regardless of  whether they need campaign cash or not. But  many Democrats, who often cite an inability to raise money at the same rate as Republicans have told me that they cannot turn down potential contributions from anywhere because that would amount to “unilateral disarmament.”

In this particular case, does $500 from John Kirtley really make that much of a difference for an incumbent lawmaker? Or perhaps is this just another sign of the rudderless Florida Democrats who do not stand for a single thing and whose political agenda is more dictated by pressure groups than their constituents and advocacy groups who seek good public policy and a vibrant debate. Regardless of your views on school vouchers,  many Florida Democrats are again demonstrating that standing on principle and fighting for those not represented by Tallahassee lobbyists or the Republican majority is a foreign concept to them. When the Democrats sell out so easily, they not only accept bad public policy but they undermine Democracy as well. We will delve further into the direct funding of Democratic candidates by voucher proponents in Part III.

During the 2012 cycle we saw continued direct contributions from both Kirtley and his organization to a number of Democrats. Given the mounting evidence of a financial incentive for Democrats who vote for school vouchers, one must wonder if there is a direct quid pro quo. The shift in attitudes towards school vouchers has been striking among Florida Democrats since 2001, a shift that does not mirror the continued public opposition to these initiatives according to public polling, nor the continued strong opposition to these sorts of schemes by Democrats outside of Florida. This past November, Florida voters overwhelmingly rejected a “religious freedom” Constitutional designed to make voucher and sectarian schools recipients of public money.

Many Florida Democrats have proven unwilling to stand strong and fight for progressive causes. As time goes on and Florida’s Democrats become less and less relevant in the political and legislative processes we find many selfish legislators have put self-interest above that of the causes they claim to have once believed in. It appears out of state campaign cash from right wing sources provides incentive to some Democrats to vote against their constituents’ wishes and that of their party and with the agenda pushed by Rick Scott and Jeb Bush.

Regarding African-American communities, lawmakers from those constituencies must consider what happens to the students left behind in the public schools when voucher recipients are shipped out to private schools and thus to the larger community around the school. Neighborhood schools are an important premise of education in the United States, and helping to build the public school systems benefits the community where the school is located. Condemning the school to failure or an “F” grade blackballs and stereotypes a community for investors, businesses and those who live there. While vouchers is less unpopular among African-Americans than it is among the public at-large (public polling consistently shows that support for vouchers is low across the board but stronger among African-Americans than other ethnic groups) many of the leaders in protecting public schools and the communities they represent have emerged from African-American neighborhoods.

As we approach the 2013 Legislative Session, I will continue to highlight the failures of Democrats to hold the line on important issues for progressives. Florida’s schools continue to fail, but the solutions proposed by Republicans and many Democrats disincentive and ostracize public education. Florida has to do better. The failure of Republican legislators to attract a sufficient amount of private sector business and employment to the state is directly correlated to the shambles that is education in Florida.

The final part of this series will be published later this week

8 comments

  1. […] Florida Squeeze is running a three part series on school “choice” legislation. Part II was published today. Part I ran last […]

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  2. Very well written and argued as usual by you. Honestly, Florida’s Democrats have become morally bankrupt. The elevation of Rouson as leader furthers this process. Our “leaders” are all either former Republicans or those bought off by business interests. It is incredible as you mention that Democrats in other states have stayed strong on these issues and offered alternative solutions to fight back against vouchers. Here in Florida our Democrats take the money from the voucher interests and may even start voucher and charter schools to make money. Keep up the good work. The Democrats may condemn you for your honesty but true liberals throughout the state are reading and listening to you.

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  3. The Democrats suck as bad as the Republicans. The vote for the vouchers and represent the companies pushing the agenda while the unions scream for the same people that are screwing them. Go Charlie…all the way to the bank. Make sure you bring Rouson, Ring, Abruzzo, Sachs, Perman and others with you……..

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  4. Concerned Democrat · · Reply

    great article. I cannot wait for the 3rd part.

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  5. Derek Kilborn · · Reply

    Kartik Krishnaiyer:

    Although we disagree politically, I wish you the best of luck on your new endeavor. I previously read, and critically commented on, part I of this series titled “School Choice Part I: The Agenda and History Behind Vouchers.” At that time, I said I would reserve final judgement until publication of the promised parts II and III.

    Having just completed part II, I have to disagree with Terry’s compliment. Frankly speaking, I think this series is poorly written, lacks substance and is likely beneath your intellectual and political talents. You used the term “rudderless” and this is exactly how I feel after reading the first two parts. Where are you going with your message, what are you trying to accomplish? If your purpose is to simply complain about Republicans, Tea Party supporters, constitutionalists, libertarians and their reform ideas, then I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. The internet is saturated with these types of mindless sounding boards on both sides of the political aisle. If however, you are serious about repairing the real and perceived problems with our public education system in Florida, then let’s get to debating real solutions.

    WHAT ARE YOUR PRINCIPLES?

    Why are you opposed to vouchers and charter schools? Perhaps you could spend more time articulating the principles of your opposition?

    CHARTER SCHOOLS

    Where are charter schools failing our students in Florida? Perhaps you can spend more time explaining whether it’s in reading and math comprehensive, high school graduation rates, college preparedness, on-campus violence, etc.? Are there varying degrees of success when comparing urban school districts to rural school districts? Who is the source, and what is the data to support your arguments? I support charter schools, the competition they create and the choices they give parents but this support is not absolute. There was an excellent article on charter school failure and fraud in this past Saturday’s edition of the Tampa Bay Times. If you haven’t read it, please check it out as an example of the type of work you’re probably capable of producing:

    Romano, John. “Remedial Lessons on Charter School Expansion.” February 23, 2013.
    http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/legislature/remedial-lessons-on-charter-school-expansion-in-florida/1276369

    If you want to improve education in the state of Florida, you can help by expanding on Mr. Romano’s piece and continuing the constructive dialogue for advancing the best attributes of our various charter school programs, while identifying and eliminating their greatest vulnerabilities.

    VOUCHERS

    Since you have not offered any constructive analysis of the voucher program in the state of Florida, I would like to refer you to a comprehensive nationwide report published by the Center on Education Policy (CEP):

    Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober. “Keeping Informed About School Vouchers.” July 27, 2011.
    http://www.cep-dc.org/cfcontent_file.cfm?Attachment=Usher%5FVoucher%5F072711%2Epdf

    I trust the reader to review the report and make their own judgments about whether vouchers are working in the state of Florida and nationwide. Within the report however, you will note that although the two comparative groups (students attending public schools and students using private schools vouchers) had similar reading and math scores, students using private school vouchers were more likely than their public school counterparts to graduate high school and enter college. The same researchers also found that private schools accepting vouchers had greater potential to desegregate the student body.

    Finally, on the subject of vouchers, do you support Federal Pell Grants? If yes, how do you distinguish your support for Federal Pell Grants from your opposition to vouchers? As you must know, the Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post baccalaureate students. These Federal Pell Grants do not have to be repaid and may be used at over 5,400 participating post-secondary institutions, including … you guessed it … religious institutions.

    WHAT IS YOUR ALTERNATIVE?

    Senator Rand Paul recently stated, “What is the best way? Let’s start with what we’ve tried. We have cut classroom size in half and tripled spending on education, and still we lag behind much of the world. We have moved control from the local level to the federal level. We have passed No Child Left Behind, which has not worked, and which most teachers I speak to would like repealed. What we have not done is return to local control, nor have we embraced the power of competition. Let’s start by agreeing that a great education needs to be available for everyone, whether you live on a country club lane or in government housing. I am convinced this will only happen when we allow school choice for everyone, rich or poor, from any background.” Is Senator Paul’s criticism fair? Perhaps you could spend more time introducing your proposals and helping us understand how they are different from one’s we’ve already tried?

    Furthermore, you’ve cited, “Democratic legislators from urban areas who have worked to find solutions that involve improving public schools and even developing public-private partnerships under the framework of the public school system.” This sounds great! Who are they, what are they doing and will their concepts work in the state of Florida? We don’t know because you’re only speaking in the abstract.

    CONCLUSION

    I am hoping that you’ll come to understand in time for publication of part III that a little humility in political discourse can be enlightening. Use your talents and your platform to make a real difference.

    DISCLAIMER

    Since some who read this comment will have a natural tendency to make certain assumptions about my background, let me introduce myself. My mother is a retired public school teacher, I was educated in a public school, attended two state universities for my collegiate education and recently committed my pre-kindergarten son to attending a public school next year.

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    1. Thanks Derek. We disagree on this issue. I will outline some of the solutions from other state in a future posting but the point of this series is to demonstrate that many Florida Democrats have flipped on this issue thanks to large donations and other considerations while in other states this has not happened. Yet at the same time Democrats continue to lose elections and the fact they haven’t offered viable alternatives as you state says all that needs to be said about their competence for leadership.

      Democracy itself depends on a give and take on the issue and the opposition being loyal but offering alternatives. All too often, Florida Democrats due to political considerations and a desire for self preservation have not done this. They have done the opposite. Vouchers is just another example of a decade long trend.

      Thanks for your input and opinions. It is always appreciated and please keep reading and commenting!

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  6. […] the publishing of Part II of this series last week, I have  been asked what happened on the school voucher issue to create a […]

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  7. Derek Kilborn · · Reply

    Kartik Krishnaiyer:

    Good evening. Since we are still waiting for a presentation of “… solutions from other states …” that are agreeable to Democrats, statists, progressives and (not classic) liberals, I’ve returned to post an editorial that was in today’s publication of the USA Today titled “Charter school experiment a success: Research confirms KIPP students do better.”

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/04/01/kipp-charter-schools-editorials-debates/2044375/

    You stated in your response, “… the fact [that Florida Democrats] haven’t offered viable alternatives … says all that needs to be said about their competence for leadership.” Perhaps on this subject, there isn’t a lack of competence among Florida Democrats? Perhaps, the only viable alternatives are the reform ideas you’ve been so quick to dismiss? Perhaps the unwillingness of the political left to put forward their own reform ideas, as evidence herewith, highlights the deficiency of their argument? Perhaps the real leadership failure is not doing what’s right for the children but only doing what’s right for the Party?

    I respect that you have engaged the contributors in the comment section, so please understand that I am trying to be critical but not personal.

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