Last Thursday, the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee voted along party lines to expand the school voucher program in an unprecedented and quite possibly unconstitutional manner. The measure which has been pushed by big-money interests and shady outside groups is likely to sail through the House though Senate passage is in serious doubt.
Before the bill goes to the Senate however, it is critical that Democrats abandon the accommodationist posture many have recently taken towards defense of the public school system. The ability of some House Democrats to “play ball” with school “choice” advocates created a dynamic where the number of legislative Democrats who supported corporate tax credit vouchers grew from just one member in 2001 to 24 in 2011. This growth in Democrats supporting school “choice” legislation has given cover to the voucher movement at a time when more and more Republicans are articulating concerns about voucher schools. As this dangerous legislation makes its way through the House it is critical that Democrats stand united to give cover to the moderate Republicans in the Senate who are willing to stick their neck out and defeat this proposal, including quite possibly Senate President Don Gaetz.
In the recent fights on “parent trigger” legislation the House Democrats stayed largely united. This gave cover to Senate Republicans to cross over in big enough numbers to kill the bill two consecutive sessions. However, on other voucher measures they did not stay together and this gave moderate Senate Republicans little or no cover at all.
A question about the shift in Democratic attitudes towards the school “choice” issue has to be asked. 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 thus meaning vouchers were more acceptable? Or is it because other forces are at play? 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 and Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley, spent over half its money in the state of Florida since 2004? Why have Democrats in other states, some more conservative than Florida rejected en masse the expansion of vouchers unlike the Democrats here? In many of these states the Democrats have been pressured by groups pushing vouchers, the attempts have been beaten back. But here in Florida, many of the problems have arisen from support lent to the voucher movement by Democrats less interested in principle and more interested in campaign cash.
As the voucher debate heats up this year we will continue to monitor this and take a look at campaign contributions from pro-voucher groups to House Democrats.
The unwillingness of many Democrats to stand strong on principle and desperation for campaign cash played into this growing acceptance of school “choice” legislation. This past week as we have explored the dynamic for 2014, we have come across several House Democrats who could sell out the ideology of progressives and vote for this heinous legislation. It must be made clear to these members that voting against public schools is not an acceptable position for a Democrat.
Now is the time for leaders in the Democratic Party to stand up and be counted. Former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich who is running for Governor has already taken a strong stand on the issue as evidenced below from her twitter account.
— Nan Rich (@senatornanrich) March 7, 2014
It is important that other statewide leaders including former Governor Charlie Crist who signed a major expansion of the voucher program when he was a Republican take a strong public stand on this. Governor Crist like Senator Rich can help solidify those House Democrats who may be thinking of crossing over and supporting this dangerous legislation.
We at The Florida Squeeze will be monitoring this legislation very closely this session and urge all our readers to hold Democrats who might be tempted to align themselves with the right-wing interests backing school “choice” accountable in the strongest possible way.