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