School “Choice” Part III: The Democrats Sorry Role in the Growth of Vouchers in Florida

By Kartik Krishnaiyer

Since the publishing of Part II of this series last week, I have  been asked what happened on the school voucher issue to create a dynamic where the number of legislative Democrats who supported corporate tax credit vouchers grew from 1 to 24 between 2001 and 2011. Did the Democrats shift ideologically to the middle in mass during that period, despite continuing to lose the vast majority of legislative elections in the state? Why has the pro-voucher group All Children Matter, founded by Betsy and Rich DeVos (the largest family contributors to the National GOP during the 1980s and 1990s) and heavily funded by the estate of Walmart founder Sam Walton, spent over half its money in the state of Florida since 2004? I have also been asked why Florida’s Democrats seem to have accepted school vouchers while their counterparts in other states, some more conservative than Florida, continue to fight tooth and nail against them.

The simple answers are campaign cash, lack of personal convictions by many Democratic officeholders and a state party with no moral compass. Also the unwillingness of Democrats to stand strong on principle and desperation for campaign cash plays into this growing acceptance of school “choice” legislation.  Many Democrats in the era of term limits and an absentee state party structure have chosen to sell out to the highest bidder possible. They also do not have the strength or courage in their personal convictions about education issues to stand tall on these matters.  Just yesterday, former Democratic Senate Leader Al Lawson testified on behalf of the “Parent Trigger Bill” in front of a House Committee. Lawson can be excused somewhat as he has not flipped his position on any of these issues. He started out fairly conservative and has stayed there. But many ostensibly liberal Democrats (or at least those who claim they are liberal when back home in front of partisan audiences) have “evolved” on the issue contrary to public opinion at home and the Democratic Party’s views in the other 49 states.

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. But this is contrasted by the large numbers of Democrats in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin that thought vouchers might work as a solution to the education issues in their states but over the last several years have flipped back towards a pro public school position.

When Jeb Bush was elected in 1998, backed by the Republican takeover of the Legislature two years earlier, school vouchers became one of the two biggest priorities for the new Governor. The other major priority of tort reform went along with the national GOP agenda of “de-funding the left,” which meant mitigating the amount of influence the trial lawyers and teachers unions could have on political campaigns. Vouchers were a way of breaking the teachers union while echoing common Republican themes about the private sector and capitalism.

Many longtime Republican legislators were dubious about vouchers. These legislators, such as  the late Senator Jim King and Representatives Dennis Jones and Evelyn Lynn, went along with the 1999 “A plus Plan” but voiced concerns about some of the plans’ facets. In time, all three of the aforementioned legislators would become thorns in the side of the school “choice” movement in Florida. Meanwhile, several other Republicans voted against the school choice plan and a few rural Conservative Democratic legislators who had stopped voting with their party on every other issue cast questions over school choice. But as time went on the conversion of Democrats from more liberal areas more than offset the defections of a few wise Republicans on the voucher issue.

The DeVos family who own the Orlando Magic were prominent financial backers of the late Rev. D. James Kennedy a Fort Lauderdale pastor whose Sunday services were beamed via satellite to a national audience. Kennedy’s weekly sermons often contained messages denouncing the separation of church as a myth and state and included frequent gay-baiting. They have also been the single largest contributor to the various groups, advocating school choice legislation in Florida, most notably the group they founded “All Children Matter.”

John Kirtley, who runs the Florida chapter of All Children Matter has been a frequent direct contributor to the campaigns of many Democrats including current House Minority Leader Ron Saunders.

According to  Right Wing Watch:

In 2004, All Children Matter-Florida run by John Kirtley paid for brochures in support of President Bush’ in Florida. The brochure falsely claimed that Senator John Kerry “opposed equal opportunity in education” and stated that President Bush supported increased education funding. Campaign finance laws require political groups to clearly identify themselves on their ads. Though the phrase “no matter what, All Children Matter” appears at the bottom of the flier the group did not place a disclaimer that they had paid for it. The Florida group then spent that money to support pro-voucher candidates in the state, without having to disclose the individuals who donated it. Relevant disclosure forms for the Florida groups will show only that money came in from All Children Matter-Virginia, with no disclosure of a connection to the Walton family. All Children Matter-Virginia appears to be the centerpiece of this scheme. ACM-VA is seeing an unprecedented cash flow even though it can only spend money in Virginia on state races and there are none in 2006. ACM-VA acts a conduit to stealthfully distribute money to other states.

According a report in the Florida Times Union the following legislative Democrats received money from pro voucher interests between 2006 and 2010

– Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington: $5,000
– Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach: $17,000
– Rep. Debbie Boyd, D-Newberry: $5,450
– Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens: $17,500
– Former Rep. Ronald Brise, D-North Miami; current member of the Public Service Commission: $13,500
– Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville: $7,000
– Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Pompano Beach: $9,850
– Former Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville; running for state Senate: $26,500*; $41,000 to Florida Fresh Start, a political action committee he heads
– Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami: $5,450
– Former Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg: $12,451
– Pat Felder-Lockett, Jacksonville Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2008: $8,750
– Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole: $16,000
– Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa: $11,450
– Rep. Hazel Rogers, D-Lauderhill: $10,000
– Rep. Darryl Rousson, D-St. Petersburg: $8,000
– Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray: $5,750
– Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West: $13,750
– Former Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa: $6,500
– Sean Shaw, Tallahassee Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2010: $6,000
– Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach: $20,750
– Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek: $8,000

Read more  about this issue at Jacksonville.com

* Terry Fields lost his Special Election in 2011.

It is worth noting that this does not include Independent Expenditures which have been done by the group on behalf of many of the above listed Democrats. I am evaluating those expenditures and hopes to have a breakdown in the near future.

As we are now into the 2013 Legislative Session, I will continue to highlight the failures of  Florida’s 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. Yet Florida Democrats instead of offering solutions or alternatives to stimulate growth in this state which are what a truly Democratic system of Government depends on, often practice “me too conservatism,” or “me too Republicanism.” Whether or not you are a liberal or a conservative, pro school “choice” or pro public schools, it is important that politicians compete with one another in the marketplace of ideas. The Democrats in Florida have failed Democracy with the unwillingness they have to stand tall on critical issues and offer strong alternatives.

11 comments

  1. Derek Kilborn · · Reply

    Kartik Krishnaiyer:

    The only reason an article like this matters is if you can first show that vouchers have done irreparable damage to the public education system, whether its reading and math comprehensive, high school graduation rates, college preparedness, on-campus violence, etc.? If vouchers are a having positive impact on the results, then perhaps these Democrats should be recognized as courageous heroes for our children? To date, you have ignored this important first step. Consequently, I’ll refer you to my comments from Part II.

    Finally, on the subject of vouchers, I’ll restate my question. 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 religious institutions.

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    1. Thanks for the response.

      The Pell Grant program is fundamentally different as no college or university is free of cost for enrollment (like local public schools) and a fundamental tenant of the public school system is to have neighborhood schools in neighborhoods where children grow up and their parents (if they are luckier than me as I have to drive ridiculous distances to the office) work.

      Vouchers itself have been rejected in many other places. I don’t fault the GOP for pushing them, although obviously I oppose the policy but I am not a Republican for many reasons. Ultimately the party’s ideology is tied to a notion of everything being “for-profit” and “private sector” while using the Government and its ability to leverage funding for any number of things to pick winners and losers. That is why the Republicans are so reluctant to cut corporate welfare programs and the military industrial complex which was again on display in the attempted sandbagging of Chuck Hagel’s DOD nomination. This is a core facet of the Republicans thinking across the nation so vouchers fits in nicely with that line of reasoning.

      The problem is that Democrats in Florida have abandoned the thinking among the party leadership in the rest of the country, giving convenient cover to these schemes. That’s the reason this series was written.

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  2. You can’t compare Pell Grants to vouchers at all. The Democratic lawyers/liars are making money hand over fist from the vouchers. You have Lawson testifying for the vouchers yesterday while his buddy Crist has supported it for years with Jeb and many Democrats.

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  3. I find it nuts, sad and stupid how the Democratic party is pushing awake the state while their own lawmakers are sleeping at the wheel. They are screaming and shouting about all these issues while their own lawmakers that come to speak at these protest voted against the people in the rally. This just proves the point. I am sure they will have Crist at the next rally fighting against prayer in school, chain gangs, cutting of healthcare programs, women’s health, education,etc…yes the very things he has cut, voted for and pushed for twenty years.

    The party is a joke specifically in this state. Follow the paper/trail money trail that Crist & company created with the Democrats..and other Republicans …you will see who they are interested in …its not you Democrats. POCKETS…their own

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  4. […] Part III of the Florida Squeeze series on School Vouchers can be found here. […]

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  5. […] to help grow the electorate and give working people something substantial to vote for. Like Kartik wrote recently, we’ve tried the “me-too” strategy of sidling up next to the Republicans in the […]

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  6. […] have also dissected the funding mechanisms for the campaign to push school vouchers in Florida, particularly John Kirtley’s “All Children Matter,” which has once again been brought forth in  McGrory’s article today. She […]

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  7. […] capitalist and the force behind the national pro-voucher group “All Children Matter” as a malign force that was able to use campaign contributions to possibly influence the thoughts of many Democrats on […]

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  8. […] have previously chronicled how Kirtley and his allies have flipped Democrats in the past and we were concerned that might happen again this session.  The coalescing of […]

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  9. Jeb Bush and his various foundations (which I believe he is using to finance his constant travel all over the country to preach the gospel of privatizing our public schools!) along with the Republican Party have as their scheme the destruction of our public school system in FL and every other state! They aim to enrich their cronies in the charter school business, for-profit, by starving the public schools of state public funds by siphoning more and more millions of those dollars to fund vouchers and charters. The FL Constitution guarantees every child in the state a free, quality public education. The theft of these funds whether in converting corporate tax payments to fund vouchers or in direct allocation of those education funds to religious and private for-profit school businesses, is a violation of the clear prohibition of this practice in that Constitution! It is an outrage, and the fact is not one test result from one charter or private/religious school in Florida to date has produced a higher score as compared to those of our public school students. In short, the euphemism of “school choice” or “parental choice” has been discredited in Florida and other states as well! It is a scheme to create huge profits for these entrepeneurs and make them rich, while providing a haven for well-to-do white children from having to observe the Brown v. Board of Education federal order of decades ago, i.e., to attend schools fully integrated with black, white, red, yellow and all other colors and cultures to ensure equality of opportunity in education. Shame on these corrupt Republicans in the Legislature for colluding in this bold scoff at our Constitution and federal school integration orders!

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  10. […] venture capitalist and the force behind the national pro-voucher group “All Children Matter” as a malign force that was able to use campaign contributions to possibly influence the thoughts of many Democrats on […]

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