Guest Column: The liberal case for school choice

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,” DanielPatrickMoynihanMoynihan 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.   


  1. Patti Lynn · ·

    Perhaps, Mr. East, the solution is to de-mystify the process and the schools involved. I support public education. I believe that each of our public schools should have the same assets as any other, and that would include motivated, dedicated teachers, as well as the technology and extra curricular activities availability. In South Florida, we have an abundance of for profit charter schools with motivation that does not always include student progress. Those successful charter schools usually demand hours of parental involvement, or else fees to pay someone else to be involved. This automatically excludes a large segment of the working poor, who can afford neither.

    De-mystifying the process would require: Public disclosure of the backgrounds of the students receiving the scholarships; A list of the schools that were accepting scholarships; A dollar amount of each scholarship, to each school; A certification that the scholarship, in and of itself, would be the only financial outlay of the student/parent; That the scholarship money would be REFUNDED to the program if the student did not successfully complete the term; A guarantee that there would be no religious studies, particular to any denomination or sect, required for successful completion of the term.

    If those things happened, I might consider supporting “vouchers.”


  2. Sharon Isern · ·

    As an educator with 36 years of experience, I have seen the quality of education in public schools and in private tax credit schools . If the schools are not-profit religious schools they teach their religious views to students at taxpayer expense. I think we need to be sure that schools of every religion get these public funding if we are going to provide it. None of these schools are regulated by the taxpayers who pay for them, so there is no review of the “education” they provide. I am even more suspect of for-profit schools …the bottom line is profit and the cuts to make those profits come from services to the students. I have seen them get more profits from
    non certified teachers and teachers fired from public schools. They exist under no regulation.


  3. Removing corporate tax revenues from Florida’ s treasury for any reason does egregious harm to every other program and every Floridian. These are tax scofflaws who begrudge paying their fair share of corporate taxes; the fact is, most FL corporations pay no taxes at all, with impunity. And using poor, minority children as cover for the overarching goal of Jeb Bush and the evangelical extremist community is scandalous! That goal is simply to destroy Florida’s free, quality pubic school education system that is guaranteed to every Florida child in its Constitution. Dig deeper, and you will find racism and elitism as the dark motivating factors, with a healthy dose of Jeb’s cronyism whereby, from Liberty City charter school that he cooked up prior to running for governor, to the proliferation of “charter” schools and voucher schemes he has husbanded with his three “foundations”. The ugly fact is: for-profit schools are a huge moneymaker for those who build them, run them and siphon off millions of scarce education dollars in Florida! They intend to starve the beast (public schools) until the whole system is privatized! There is zero financial accountability for these private operations. These corporations have been caught paying huge “rents” to themselves for the classroom space they occupy, paid directly out of our public school funds! Their headmasters are being paid $200,000, typically, per year, again, straight out of our public school funds! It is known via newspaper articles about these private schools that an alarming number of them fail financially, are rife with embezzlement of these public funds, and not one school’s students has received a higher score than our public school students here in Florida. I would describe them, by any practical measure, an abject failure! The scandalous malfeasance of those running these schools is unacceptable, and I believe that most Floridians, if they knew what was going on behind closed doors in these schools, would demand an end to all of it! What we need to do is simply CONCENTRATE our efforts and our public funds on IMPROVING all aspects of our publc schools at every level. Florida has a history, and it is a disgrace, of never adequately funding its public school system. It’s present state is a culmination of that six or seven decade long neglect! I contend that privatizing education here has been a total failure, except to the bottom line of those hucksters who look to make a financial killing starting one of these “schools.”


  4. Blue Dog Dem · ·

    What about rural areas with no private schools?

    What about standards???


  5. Sharon Isern · ·

    I agree with Patti Lynn…the spending of taxpayer money requires regulation and disclosure. These voucher schools can refuse to admit students who might not perform well, a “luxury” public schools do not have….we have to accept everyone.


  6. Patti Lynn · ·

    Another requirement should be that the “scholarship voucher” equals what the expenditure would be if that student remained at his, or her public school….AND….no other money would be required from the student, or the state.


  7. Patti and Sharon,

    I think you are right on point about transparency. Most everything you are describing is available for public consumption, and I’d be happy to pass it along to you as well (my email is We certainly can break down enrollment by school and race and even household income. The state has also reviewed prior test scores for students who have chosen the scholarship, which helps us understand whether it is attracting high or low performers. On the scholarship amount itself, this year it is, by law, 76 percent of the unweighted FTE for public schools under the Florida Education Finance Program formula (an operational formula which itself represents about 75 percent of total public school spending per student). It will cap out at 82 percent in 2016. Unfortunately, the school can indeed charge the difference between the scholarship and actual tuition and fees, and many do. One result is that about 5,000 students this year received a scholarship but did not use it because their family could not afford the difference.

    To Blue Dog Dem,

    Rural areas are indeed an issue, because they have fewer schools. But currently there are enrolled students in 66 of the 67 counties. As for standards, the schools are not required to administer the state assessment or to adhere to Florida’s version of common core standards. But they are required to administer a nationally norm-referenced test approved by DOE, and most use the Stanford Achievement, which is pretty much the gold standard. It would be better, certainly, if they took the state assessment because that would give us all the cleanest comparison with public school students, and maybe that will happen some day soon. In the meantime, I do think the Stanford results are meaningful, and give us all a reasonable indication of whether these students are making progress.

    Thank you all for your earnest comments, and I’ll try to stay plugged in throughout the day and do my best to answer. Feel free to email me or call me directly.



    1. Patti Lynn · ·

      Jon…you have NAILED IT!!!!! The only folks who can afford a really good private school, on a “scholarship voucher,” are those who already have enough money…but, as a result of taxpayers funding, are getting a discount!!! These institutions are getting TAX CREDITS to offer the opportunity…it should be a true opportunity, not a discount for the wealthy!!


      1. Patti: Under current law, a new scholarship student’s household income cannot exceed 185 percent of poverty, which comes to about $44,000 for a household of four. In fact, the actual average household income on the program this year is about $24,000, which is only about 5 percdent of poverty. So the program is indeed serving very poor kids. What we find is that schools respond differently to the fact that the scholarship doesn’t pay the full amount — some require full payment, some ask for partial, some let parents pay with volunteer help, and some don’t require any payment at all. As a result a lot of poor families are served, though more could potentially be served if all the schools were required to accept the scholarship as full payment. Jon


      2. Patti Lynn · ·

        Thanks for the clarification…of course, the needier the family, the less likely that they will be available to volunteer on a regular basis….


  8. Latha Krishnaiyer · ·

    Mr East:

    Invoking the names of liberal statesmen like Sen. Moynihan, who supported tax credits for underprivileged students in a different era out of true liberal ideals, does not justify the current Florida tax credit scholarships, which are unregulated, unaccountable and have proven time and again to not provide a higher quality education than public schools, is totally misleading.

    Just as Sen. Moynihan supported a high quality education for all children, those of us who are lifelong advocates of children and public education fight for the same everyday. It is time for you to stop implying that we do not want to give children from lower socio economic groups the same oppoortunities.

    In fact, the magnet schools and IB programs you claim are only available in higher income areas,are usually in schools that need help in under enrolled, lower income areas and rarely in higher income area schools. This is to ensure that all children have the same opportunity. This is another totally erroneous statement on your part.

    As someone who came here from a country that does not provide a quality public education for all children, the remarkable public education system in the U.S. is something that we should all be very proud of, preserve and maintain, as it opens its doors to all children and does the very best it can for them. I will continue to fight for public education as long as I am able. You should do so too.

    Public schools are accountable, open their doors to all children, have standards, certification requirements and qualifications for teachers and staff. Show me a private school that will meet all this criteria, agree to administer the same tests as public schools, be graded on their performance, accept any child that shows up at the door and have a faculty and staff who are fully certified and I may view your piece with a little more credibility.

    And by the way, public schools,do not contribute to the campaigns of policy makers in an effort to buy their vote. The millions your group spends on campaign contributions would be better spent advocating for every public school to be a high quality institution.

    Pour the resources you are taking away from public schools, in the form of tax credits, into ensuring that all children receive the education they deserve at their local public school. Work to give them the flexibility to teach children at their own pace, to suit their individual learning styles, small class sizes and increased parent involvement, to help parents continue the learning process at home. Help us fight the excessive testing and regulations that tie the hands of teachers and principals. Stop using tests to grade public schools and punish them. Join us, rather than diverting money to for profit schools that fail to meet the same standards and accountability as public schools.

    Please do not insult our intelligence by comparing the schools that receive these scholarships to public schools.These schools simply do not provide the same education as public schools do. If that is your goal, get the high priced private schools such as Pinecrest in Broward, Ransom Everglades in Miami-Dade etc., to admit these students for the value of a tax credit scholarship, without testing them for ability or other preconditions and maybe we can talk.

    If and when, you write an article listing the schools that receive these students, their academic grades, certification level of teachers and overall using the same criteria as public schools to compare them, you will be met with less skepticism and more warmth. You need to provide the same proof and transparency required of public schools. I am looking forward to receiving that information from your organization one of these days.


    1. Latha,

      I do believe that you and I met a few years back and I see you now, as I did then, as a true-blue warrior for public education. I have only respect for your advocacy, and implicit in your work is that you are driven to provide opportunity to children who were not born with advantage. You should be proud of that.

      The only thing that separates our education worldview, I’m guessing, is that I don’t think this type of option for these types of kids is somehow antithetical to public education. Last year, nearly 1.5 million students in Florida PreK-12 chose something other than their traditional neighborhood school. These parents, for the most part, are just trying to find the school that works best for their kids and harbor no political agenda. It is certainly true that some political supporters of school choice, and particularly scholarship programs such as this one, feel animus toward public education and believe that market competition is a necessary tool to use against public education. But that’s not me. It’s certainly not U.S. Cory Booker or former state Sen. Al Lawson. What we see are some kids who were struggling and were given an option they couldn’t otherwise afford and it clicked for them.

      This scholarship is an option. Nothing more, nothing less. It works for some kids but it certainly won’t work for all. The fact that Lawson gave the closing floor speech in 2010 on a scholarship expansion bill sponsored then by Republican Sen. Joe Negron brands Lawson not as a sellout but as a Democrat who was unafraid to cross party lines on issues in which he found common ground. The same goes for Sen. Jeremy Ring, who voted for scholarship legislation last year. He’s not anti-public school.

      As for a few of your specific points:

      * You are right that many magnet schools are in fact in historically black and often poor neighborhoods, which was actually the point I was trying to make when I noted that many white and more affluent students leave schools in their own neighborhoods to pursue their own choices.

      * I agree that schools that teach public education students must be held to account for how well students perform, but I don’t think the regulatory requirements have to be a carbon copy of each other.

      * I generally agree with your stated public school agenda, and would gladly work alongside you. I spent 15 years myself on school SACs in Pinellas, most of them as chairman, and I too saw the enormous pressure that testing and other measures are putting on classroom teachers. For what it’s worth, I lead the Times editorial crusade in support of a half-mill property tax increase for Pinellas schools, a referendum that has now passed three different times.

      * I can assure you that our scholarship organization does not give and has never given a penny directly or indirectly to any candidate for public office. Maybe you are confusing Step Up For Students with the chairman of our board of directors, who is personally involved in many organizations that do so and has given personal contributions himself. I don’t think either you or I want to remove from him that right.

      I love your passion Latha, and I appreciate what you do for public education.



  9. floridian · ·

    Mr. East, when you said that students on voucher in FL have the same “gains” on standardized test score as all students nationally I believe you are being deceptive. First, what tests? Tests like the FCAT, which private schools resist giving, are designed to measure whether a child is at grade level. I believe the tests you reference are simply aptitude tests and not designed to measure proficiency. If I am wrong, please prove it.

    Furthermore, vouchers do not save public schools money. When kids leave a traditional school to take a voucher the school loses money. If a school has 100 students one year but 90 the next due to vouchers, it will receive less money. It still must pay teachers and maintain the campus but now it must do so with fewer funds. There are fixed costs to running a school that you are not considering.

    Finally, you make no reference to the constitution in FL. The state is indirectly subsidizing private education where some kids are learning “creation science” essentially on the public dime. This is wrong and I believe the courts will rule it a violation.


    1. These are great questions. First, you should be aware that the DOE has links to every one of these reports on its web site at So the best you can do is reads for yourself. You are absolutely right that these are not criterion-based tests, but I don’t think we should dismiss them entirely as a result. As you may recall, until about five years ago all Florida public school districts administered the Stanford Achievement as part of the FCAT. A few districts still do so, on their own, because they want to gain the perspective of the national comparison.

      I will respectfully disagree with your assessment about the financial impact of scholarships. Seven different independent reports, including ones by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the Official Revenue Estimating Conference and Florida TaxWatch, have all determined that the scholarship program saves tax dollars that can be used to enhance public education. Your fixed-cost argument turns on the basic premise that school budgets should be set independently of how many children attend the school, because the type of ebb and flow of students you discuss is prevalent in every public and private school in the state. Reverse your scenario and imagine a charter school or a private scholarship school who loses three students to aa public school. Should it then be funded as though the students were still there?

      The last thing is about religion. I respect you if you think that not a single dollar of public money, direct or indirect, should go to religious institutions. That’s a defensible and reasonable position. What I will say is that, from everything we currently know, it is in fact constitutional. In our system of governance, the courts get to decide these questions, and the most relevant precedent is the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court opinion known as Zelman v. Harris-Simmons. In that case, the court ruled that a school voucher program in Cleveland with more than 80 percent of its schools faith-based is constitutional under the Establishment Clause so long as the primary purpose is education and the parents have a genuine choice to pick from both secular and sectarian options.


      1. floridian · ·

        You are talented in your use of words, Mr. East. In your second paragraph you said that savings from vouchers “can” be used to enhance public schools. Based on Florida’s ranking in school spending I would argue it does not enhance public schools with savings from private vouchers. Ever heard of the promise made to schools if we started a lottery in this state? We were promised lottery dollars for schools. It never happened.

        As for testing, why does SUFS and the schools it speaks for steadfastly oppose the state tests public schools take so we can have a true picture of how voucher students are doing?


      2. Hi Floridian:

        I think you’re right. I was being too glib about how the savings could be used. But I’m totally with you on school spending. It’s too low. The appropriated per-student spending, what is known as the FEFP (Florida Education Finance Program) amount for public schools this year is just $6,397 — which is astonishingly still less than what the state spend in 2007-08. My main point, which is a more precise one, is that some people blame that reduction on things such as the scholarship program. And that’s simply not correct.

        From our experience, there are a large number of private schools that would take the state test if they could make the logistics work. Until a 2012 law, they were prohibited from administering it. And last year fewer than a dozen private schools took the opportunity to administer the state test when the ban was lifted, but I’m hoping that was primarily because they were in the position of volunteering to take what was the last FCAT ever administered. To your point, some of the private school associations have taken formal positions against requiring the state assessment, but the actual schools themselves are remarkably open-minded. I have my fingers crossed.



  10. Pat Lavins · ·

    As a liberal who herself attended private schools, I understand the advantages of some of the proposed changes to our educational system. I and my fellow liberals are not opposed to use of tax funds per se nor do we see it as a plot by conservatives to destory public education.

    Sadly, edcated people have proven to be correct in being guarded in the acceptance of “charter schools” and vouchers because most of the alternatives to public education are nothing more than a revenue stream for corporations. This has been the experience learned from the Jeb Bush masquerade about being concerned about education. Under the “leadership” of Jeb Bush we saw tax dollars flowing from one corporation to another for allegedly providing the standardized testing, the production of text books to help improve scores in the standardized testing process and finally as a means to undermine the efforts of dedicated teachers.

    The whole concept of education has become a commodity by which a few more wealthy people become more wealthy,There is no evidence that any individual student has achieved something that he would not have achieved in the public school system. There is NOTHING beneficial for the average middle class student in a Florida classroom. We are doing a grave disservice to our children who will not be able to be compete in the global marketplace in the 21st century. This means that rather than wasting money on corporations we need to invest more time, money and effort in our current school administrators, teachers and students. We need to eliminate from the conversation the wishful thinking that minority children will benefit because there is no evidence to support such a false claim.

    Having a voucher so that your child can attend a different school environment is not realistic for the family that has to pay costs of transportation to the new educational center. Nor is the family in need of financial support going to be able to be more hands-on in their child’s education. The education elite do not consider that far too many parents in Florida have to work two minimum wage jobs just to keep food on the table.

    Advocates for “charter schools” and vouchers need to analyze the volume of children in Florida who qualify for the food stamps and subsidized school lunch programs. If you do the math, it is relatively easy to recognize that the middle class parent are not able to take on the additional burden of subsidizing education for another family.

    In Florida we are not able to even have a civil discussion about Common Core because the politics have polluted the environment. Far too many parents have the false view that Common Core is anything more than a Federal takeover of education. There is, of course, no evidence to support such an ideology. So settling the issue of the value of Common Core should be a high priority that needs to be addressed prior to any discussion of “charter schools” or vouchers.

    Bottom line: Our children only have one childhood. They should not be used as a commodity in a political war of ideology. We are doing a grave disservice to the next generation in allowing our children to be profit motivators for a select few.


    1. Pat,

      I agree with a lot of what you say, but I visit a lot of the schools that participate in the tax credit scholarship and it would be a mistake to view them as some form of corporatization. First of all, I’m not sure if any of the schools are for-profit. Roughly three-fourths are faith-based and most others — with the exception of some of the higher-end preparatory schools — are small and very much mission-driven. There are Waldorf schools, for example, as well as a school that one Tampa husband and wife literally built themselves. One principal retired from roughly 30 years of public school teaching on a Friday to start a K-5 private school on the following Monday where she was laser-focused on teaching black males how to read.

      I would also tell you that the parents with whom I talk are pretty darned motivated and they are certainly hugely supportive of the program. In the past five years, the demand, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, has really taken off. These are very poor families that apply and often have to take money out of their pockets to pay the difference. Sometimes, admittedly, they may simply be looking to get their child out of environment where he or she might bullied or simply is hanging out with the wrong crowd. That’s no criticism of the public school they were in, but wealthier parents have always had more options in handling those kinds of things. They can move to a different school zone or pay for a private school. So we find these parents — and we’re talking now about a program that serves nearly 70,000 students, ranking it 11th largest if it were a school district — are very appreciative of this option. And I just can’t see why would want to take it away from them.

      I know, like you, that there is no magic solution to helping kids break the vicious cycle of general poverty. So I just think we all should work together to try to win that battle one child at a time.



  11. […] While Hawk takes a libertarian approach to school choice, Floridian Jon East writes a Liberal case for school choice. […]


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