Diane Ravitch requested this article. As I wrote it, I was struck by what a small, but politically well connected club was behind Florida’s choice movement. They attracted big money to sell their ideas. The end result, in spite of the growth of Florida’s tax credit vouchers, shows that: Not all Choices are Good Choices.
Following Jeb Bush’s 1994 defeat in his run for governor, he dented his image. According to a Tampa Bay Times report, in a televised debate Bush responded ‘not much’ when asked what he would do for black voters. Faced with criticism, he launched a charter school in Miami, and the school choice movement in Florida began.
In 1998, John Kirtley, a venture capitalist, funded private school scholarships to low income children. He took the idea to then Representative Joe Negron, who is now the President of the Florida Senate. Jeb Bush was governor, and the state’s voucher and corporate tax credit scholarship programs began.
Florida’s constitution, however, prohibited the direct or indirect transfer of money from the state treasury to private schools. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that vouchers paid by the treasury were unconstitutional. Florida corporate tax credits (FTC) became the vehicle to fund what initially were private school scholarships for children from disadvantaged families. Corporations could donate owed taxes to Step Up for Students, a private non-profit organization which issued tuition warrants to qualified parents. These FTC scholarships have also been litigated.
According to Politico, in 2016 Betsy DeVos paid one million dollars through her foundation to send thousands of children to Tallahassee for a rally against the FTC scholarship lawsuit. In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court determined the lawsuit lacked standing and declined to rule on the constitutionality issue.
Step Up for Students is the management organization for the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program. John Kirtley is Chair of the Board and founder. Its President, Doug Tuthill achieved notoriety in a 2011 video when he revealed that over one million dollars was spent in every other election cycle on local races. The strategy is to make low income families the face of the program and target black ministers to support the program.
Step Up for Students has grown into a $500 million dollar operation. It currently allocates nearly 100,000 FTC scholarships to over 1700 of Florida’s private schools. In addition, it administers the Gardiner scholarships for students with severe disabilities and the Alabama Opportunity Scholarships. The FTC scholarships program alone costs $422,648,470. Administrative expenses total about five million dollars, but other budget categories include four million dollars for communications and advocacy programs related to Step Up’s advocacy for choice mission including RedefinEd, its newsletter.
Audit findings in 2015-16 noted that Step Up was lax in its recovery of funds from private schools that received tuition warrants from students who did not enroll. In 2016, this amount was $252,363. Auditors also noted that Step Up failed to conduct required financial background checks on all private schools participating in the program.
The engine of the choice movement is Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd). It provides model legislation, rule-making expertise, implementation strategies, and public outreach to 38 states. Betsy DeVos was a board member until she was confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education. Ties to ExcelinEd include:
- Chiefs for Change: an advocacy group of state and local school superintendents
- Florida Education Report Cards: a publication that grades legislators on their votes for education policy.
- Florida Federation for Children. an ‘electioneering communication’ organization chaired by John Kirtley who has spent five million dollars on campaigns since 2004.
- American Federation for Children and Alliance for School Choice. a parental choice advocacy organization chaired by Betsy DeVos. John Kirtley is the Vice Chair.
With this backdrop, U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, now says that Florida is the national model for school choice. DeVos’ American Federation for Children ranks Step Up for Children as number one in its 2016-17 report. Evidently, more is better. Its criteria are based on the dollar value of the scholarships, their reach, and the growth of the program over time. Quality indicators are not included in the ranking. For example,
- FTC private schools are exempt from state teacher certification requirements and curriculum standards. Children are not required to take Florida State Assessments.
- According to a Florida Department of Education report, while ten percent of FTC students gained more than twenty percentile points on a nationally normed test, fourteen percent lost more than twenty percentile points.
- Students who struggle the most academically tend to return to public schools. These students perform less well than other lunch subsidized public school students who never participated in the FTC program. The Department of Education researchers state that the data they were able to collect over represents white, female and higher income children. Thus, the achievement of all FTC students is likely even lower than reported.
- FTC scholarships are not limited to Florida’s poor families. Current income guidelines for a family of four are $48,600 for a full scholarship of $5,886 and $63,180 for a partial scholarship.
- Private schools that accept Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarships enroll more Hispanics (38%) than black students (30%).
- Eighty-two percent of FTC students attend religious schools.
- The FTC program does not target struggling public schools. Only twenty-five percent of FTC students are from public schools that had ‘D’ or ‘F’ school grades.
A few well connected, wealthy Floridians launched a movement that nearly twenty years later has earned extraordinary publicity and grown exponentially. Yet, traditional public schools continue to outperform charters or FTC private schools. Communities most impacted by school choice experience a downward spiral. Schools are underfunded and become more segregated. This is not a model for the nation to follow.