Julie Delegal: Charlie Crist and the Voucher Factory

Former and would-be Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has defied this columnist’s 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.

Last Wednesday, Crist refused to denounce the 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. 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!” readers will exclaim. “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 — the one that involved using state money for private-school tuition.

So Bush promptly 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 turned into “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 tax 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 voted to expand 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, in a separate lawsuit.)

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 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 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.

Scott has trampled over 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 one 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. Readers will 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 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. 

Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Julie Delegal

One comment

  • OrlandoChris

    September 15, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Vote Adrian Wyllie for Governor! Also, Bill Wohlsifer for Attorney General and yes on 2.

    Why vote between 2 known liars? Florida, we are fortunate enough not to

    be stuck picking one liar or the other this time. We actually have an

    alternative. Take advantage of the opportunity. Adrian Wyllie deserves

    my vote. He is a honest average Floridian just as you and I , that is

    willing to stand up and do something for the interest of all of us here

    in Florida. The other candidates both Republican and Democrat are owned

    and controlled by special interest, like puppets and will lie to your

    face to gain your vote, then continue the same old agenda that we

    complain about year after year. Time to get off this merry-go-round,

    election after election, thinking it will be any different. Take a

    stand, vote for the candidate that loves this state and is willing to

    take time out of his life, effort and money to SERVE the people of

    Florida and stop voting for these ‘paid for’ career politicians that are

    only out for money and fame and have zero interest in us Floridians.

    Even if it’s just for honesty alone, vote for Adrian Wyllie instead of

    the other two (Scott/Crist) which are proven liars. The choice is yours

    and yours alone, if you want the same old corruption and slap in the

    face, go ahead and vote for one of the two puppets (Scott/Crist) OR do

    what is right for our (yours and your children’s) future and vote for

    Adrian Wyllie. Support him by donating to his campaign, spreading the

    word and contribute to the super brochure program which I think is very

    powerful. Visit his website today

Comments are closed.


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