As the”parent trigger” debate has reminded us, the school “choice” movement is a well-funded, politically motivated campaign which falsifies organizational support and has failed to captivate the grassroots despite the spending of tens of millions of dollars on propaganda here in the state of Florida. After more than a decade and a half of endless conservative clamoring for vouchers and other initiatives that undermine public schools, public opinion about school “choice” remains where it was in 1998, with the majority of Floridians consistently indicating a distaste for vouchers both in public opinion polls and at the ballot box when school “choice” related initiatives are voted on.
Despite this, the Republican Party of Florida has gone from having several moderate critics of vouchers and school “choice” (last session, eight Republicans in the Senate broke ranks and opposed parent trigger. Of those eight senators, only three remain in the chamber ) to supporting an unpopular and unwise policy almost in lockstep. The reason: Republican “savior” Jeb Bush and his control over the education agenda for Florida Republicans, which was based largely on a desire to destroy teacher’s unions throughout the state.
Jeb Bush left the Governor’s office over six years ago, yet his influence continues to dominate the legislative agenda of the state GOP. Last year’s razor thin defeat of the “parent trigger” bill gave progressives a rare legislative victory but that was just the latest salvo in a nearly two decade battle to save Florida’s schools from Jeb Bush’s political agenda. This week as Bush’s allies apply the full court press to pass some version of “parent trigger,” it is critical that Floridians understand that little support for this legislation has been generated organically but instead has been stimulated by paid consultants, political operatives and stretching the truth. It is also important to realize that the political gain by breaking the teacher’s union is the primary motivation for conservative politicians to push school choice initiatives. While some may profit monetarily from voucher and charter schools that is a side benefit to the chief motivation behind this legislation.
The national and state media often gave Jeb Bush credit for being wonkier on policy, especially when compared to his older brother George W. Bush. But the reality is that Florida’s Bush took a page out of Karl Rove’s Texas playbook. In Texas, Rove worked with Republican legislators and statewide officials to curb the power and influence of the trial lawyers, whose campaign contributions kept the Democrats competitive against the corporate funded GOP. De-funding the left was the mantra and in Florida, the younger Bush repeated the trick by curbing the power, influence and ultimately the spirit of the trial lawyers and the teachers unions. For the purposes of this discussion we will focus on the efforts to undo the power of the teachers union.
Jeb Bush’s push for school “choice” began in the mid 1990s after his loss to Democrat Lawton Chiles in the 1994 General Election. Bush advocated school vouchers in the 1994 campaign, but it was just one of many platform items that were buried in a campaign where the GOP cynically attacked Governor Chiles on a number of issues. Bush lost in the most Republican election cycle since 1952 largely because he was perceived, despite his family’s centrist reputation, as a hard core right winger.
Bush, ever the politician, looked to remake his image in a “kinder gentler way” as a true Bush scion, and used Educational interest as a way to moderate his image. Bush began the Foundation for Florida’s future, a conservative think tank focused heavily on Education policy. Along with Miami Urban League President T. Willard Fair, Bush began Florida’s first charter school after the Legislature approved charter schools. This for profit school was strongly supported by Jon Hage, the nation’s most vocal for-profit school advocate, and a Bush family partisan. Hage now manages Charter School USA which manages multiple charter schools in Florida, thanks to the indulgence of the legislature. Hage also recently started three schools in Indiana.
When Bush was elected in 1998, many longtime Republican legislators were dubious about vouchers. These legislators, such as 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 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 movement.
Year after year Bush would propose some degree of voucher legislation and while he signed much of what he wanted, every now and again the Senate would kill his bills. Throughout Bush’s second term, the Florida Senate was a centrist body that pushed back against the excesses in his agenda. This trend continued into Charlie Crist’s Governorship, while Bush pushed vouchers from the outside and Crist signed multiple school “choice” bills into law. In time Bush’s continued obsession with school “choice” and other schemes that weaken public schools have became the default Republican education agenda, while right wing think tanks continue to cite Florida as the model for other states in education policy.Bush’s overall impact has been to strip the Republican Party in Florida of any strong sentiment to reform and revitalize Florida’s public schools instead using “competition” as a mantra to weaken the most powerful union in the state. Yet the public has not moved on this issue.
Because of the amount of money Bush’s allies have pumped into GOP campaigns and the relative inexperience and lack of historical perspective most legislators carry in this term-limits era, it has become easier for Bush to force his agenda to become the default GOP education platform. Fear of the teacher’s union has grown to a fever pitch among Republican lawmakers after the 2006, 2008 and 2012 election cycles and that is further pushing the GOP towards Bush’s position.
Bush’s allies have pumped loads of money into state elections, fancy public relations oriented campaigns and lobbying the legislature yet have failed to make a dent in public opinion. Floridians today much like 15 years ago are opposed to these initiatives that experiment with school children and potentially destroy neighborhoods.