Editors Note: At the Florida Squeeze, we have been steadfast in our opposition to school “choice” schemes and remain so today. We however, are interested in fostering a debate on numerous issues this one included. Empowerment of Florida’s minority community and fighting for economic and social justice is what motivates much of what we do on this website. Today we present a contrasting view on our school choice position penned by Jon East. Feel free to leave respectful feedback in the comments section below.
By Jon East
In 1981, four years after Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and 24 fellow Democrats failed to get Congress to pass a tuition tax credit for poor children to attend private schools, he mused about what he saw as a lost opportunity.
“In the late 1960s, educational vouchers were generally regarded as a progressive proposal,” Moynihan told a researcher then. “Liberal faculty members would wish to be associated with it. Good foundations would support it. … It has, however, become increasingly clear that public funding of nonpublic schools will be advocated with vigor by persons on the political right.
“As the issue becomes more and more a conservative cause, it will, I suppose, become less and less a liberal one. If that happens, it will present immense problems for a person such as myself who was deeply involved in this issue long before it was either conservative or liberal. And if it prevails only as a conservative cause, it will have been a great failure of American liberalism not to have seen the essentially liberal nature of this pluralist proposition.”
The late senator certainly had political prescience. One of the education initiatives to which he devoted much of his distinguished career – public support for private school education – has indeed become such a Republican staple that far too many Democrats now viscerally oppose it.
I used to be one of them. I grew up in a progressive North Carolina home and still remember my mom, a Democratic precinct committeewoman, crying on the living room sofa the night in 1968 that Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon. As a journalist in Florida, I spent more than two decades writing about education issues for the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, a powerful liberal voice which to this day has never endorsed a Republican for governor or president.
For me, though, the clear line between public and private education began to blur somewhere between my daughters’ magnet schools and our first African-American president’s obsession with charter schools. Those of us who fought to desegregate schools also had to come to terms with the jarring contradiction, uncovered primarily through No Child Left Behind Act data, that the efforts in far too many cases produced no improvement in the achievement gap between races.
In the modern world of public education, even families from more affluent neighborhoods with high-performing public schools are taking advantage of new learning alternatives such as magnets and International Baccalaureate programs. It seems almost criminal that the children who need help the most – those challenged by poverty – tend to have the fewest options.
So I now work for a nonprofit that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves 69,000 students this year whose average household is only 5 percent above poverty. The 1,500 participating private schools run the gamut – from high-end preparatory institutions that accept a handful of students each year as a community service to dirt-poor religious schools for whom helping underprivileged children is their calling. In turn, the students who choose the scholarship are poor, mostly black or Hispanic and were struggling academically in the public schools they left behind.
For liberals like me, these are precisely the kinds of families who deserve our helping hand – whether that be with food and nourishment, medical care, legal aid or different education options. As Moynihan and even Democratic presidential candidate Humphrey believed, our national compact on education to each new generation should include the ability of economically disadvantaged students to choose a learning option they cannot otherwise afford.
This is not to argue the merits of the scholarship, which I leave to another day. Indeed, I believe the 13-year track record of the Florida tax credit scholarships is encouraging – showing that it serves the students who struggle the most and that they are achieving the same standardized test score gains as students of all incomes nationally, that public schools most impacted by the scholarship are themselves achieving commendable gains, that the scholarship saves tax money that can enhance traditional public schools. But my point here is about motivations.
Why has this scholarship attracted the public support of many prominent Democrats? We Democrats should not be so quick to dismiss this as some conservative plot to destroy public education.
Last year, as African-American Newark mayor Cory Booker sought his party’s nomination to the U.S. Senate, his Democratic opponent tried to tar him as anti-public education simply because he supports private school scholarships for economically disadvantaged children. In Florida, Haitian-American state Rep. Daphne Campbell drew a Democratic primary challenger supported by the teacher union because she broke ranks on a House Democratic Caucus position against a scholarship bill. Charlie Crist faced uncomfortable questions from black clergy who wanted him to publicly denounce a union lawsuit that seeks to put the scholarship out of business entirely.
In a party that prides itself for its big tent, this is the kind of litmus test that tears at the fabric.
To support these scholarships is not to condemn traditional public education. It is simply to recognize that different students learn in different ways and the more options we provide them the better we find one that best fits their learning style. It is not to claim the private schools are any better than traditional public schools. Rather, these schools are merely different, which sometimes is all it takes to turn around a child’s academic career.
When Bill Heller, lifelong St. Petersburg public educator and then-ranking Democrat on the House Education Policy Council, endorsed a major expansion of the tax credit scholarship in 2010, he reminded people of his high-profile role in passing a county referendum for higher property taxes for public schools.
“To me, a scholarship option for poor, struggling schoolchildren is in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity,” Rep. Heller wrote in the Tampa Bay Times. “I do not feel it is anti-public school but prochild, which is what every educator, public or private, supports and values.”
You may disagree, if you wish. But there is no good reason to malign the motivations of Democrats who, like Heller or Campbell or Booker or Moynihan, see these scholarships as in perfect harmony with party values. The tent can hold us all.
Jon East is vice president of policy and public affairs for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the Tax Credit Scholarship program. He spent 28 years at the St. Petersburg Times, mostly writing about education issues for the editorial board.