CITIZEN MAMA

CHARLIE AND THE VOUCHER FACTORY

The Tanned One signals opposition to the state’s voucher scheme

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Former and would-be Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has defied my prediction. Coming out on a policy that has divided Florida for 16 years was definitely against the odds. The Tanned One has chutzpah.

The policy is education reform, and, as governor, Crist stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his predecessor, Jeb Bush, for whom education is now a marquee issue. Bush-brand education reform has three main platform planks: accountability for public school teachers, high-stakes testing, and school privatization. Privatization, in turn, has taken two forms in Florida: charter schools and the private-school voucher program.

Recently, Crist refused to denounce a lawsuit that challenges the existence of private-school vouchers in Florida. For that, he is getting flak from a traditionally Democratic source: the black clergy. The Rev. H.K. Matthews, an African-American minister who marched with Martin Luther King, has taken Crist to task for his switch on vouchers.

The state's teachers union and other plaintiffs say that the voucher program violates two constitutional provisions — school uniformity and religious non-establishment. The Florida NAACP, the state PTA and other plaintiffs support the lawsuit.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "Didn't the Florida Supreme Court put the kibosh on private-school tuition vouchers several years ago?"

Yes and no. In 2006, the court did shut down Jeb Bush's "front door" voucher program, which involved using state money for private-school tuition.

So instead, Bush widened the back door. Tampa business magnate John Kirtley had already created a private foundation endowing private-school scholarships in 1998. In 2001, the private charity became a publicly funded entity. That year, the Legislature approved a dollar-for-dollar tax decrease for corporate taxpayers who wanted to help send children to private schools.

Presto-chango! Corporate income tax payments became "donations." The scholarship funding organization, Step Up for Students, was born. "Donors" meet periodically with lawmakers, governors and private school officials in gatherings across the state. The "donor parties" are billed as celebrations of school choice but, in the end, they're a handy way for corporate executives to bend lawmakers' ears.

Paying one's taxes to a nonprofit group brings staggering implications. Do corporations also deduct these "donations" on their federal returns? Do they report them as state income taxes paid? Both?

Thanks to a 141-page amendment — hidden in a Trojan horse education bill at the 11th hour of this year's legislative session — lawmakers have expanded the voucher program from $358 million this year to $447 million next year. (The Florida Education Association is also suing over how the bill was passed.)

SUFS's public relations machine has been good at cultivating the individual success stories that sell the program. They haven't been above framing private-school vouchers as a civil rights concern, either. That makes vouchers a hot-button emotional issue for some leaders in the African-American community.

SUFS even gained bipartisan support in Florida by using school choice groups to fund several black Democratic lawmakers' campaigns, as the organization's president, Doug Tuthill, described in a 2011 video.

But, as State Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville has explained, support for the private-school tuition program is waning. Earlier this year, Jones told WJCT's Melissa Ross that privatization in Florida has reached a tipping point — and it now tips toward harming public schools. Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is on record stating that privatized alternatives have drained $70 million from the district's budget.

Will there be a significant splinter over voucher schools among black Democrats? Probably not.

While ministers may raise a ruckus, it will signify little, if anything, on Election Day. The outrage Rev. Matthews professes against Crist is likely to be far overshadowed by other issues.

Gov. Rick Scott has trampled on traditionally Democratic interests — most significantly, insuring the working poor. He looked the other way while the Legislature turned back an estimated $66 billion in Medicaid expansion funds, leaving 1 million Floridians uninsured.

Moreover, the voting restrictions that occurred on Scott's watch have been unparalleled, and they've been aimed squarely at reducing African-American votes.

The Tanned One has signaled to education voters that he's no longer a true believer in Bush-brand reforms. Will it pay off?

It didn't in 2010, after he vetoed the controversial bill that tied teacher evaluations directly to student test scores. You may recall that Crist ran for Senate that year as an Independent. But there's very little that could have overcome the perils of a three-way Senate race in which the Democratic vote was split.

The race for the governor's mansion, on the other hand, is — in practical terms — limited to two people.

One of them — Rick Scott — cut $1.3 billion from education in his first year.

The other — Crist — gave a tacit nod to 
the plaintiffs who are tired of underfunded public schools.

A version of this column originally appeared on Context Florida.

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