Advocate Voices

John Kirtley on universal vouchers, tax credit scholarships and more

John Kirtley is the chairman of Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog

Jeffrey Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times recently interviewed Step Up For Students Board Chair John Kirtley for a Times story on Florida’s education choice programs. Jeff’s questions and John’s answers are below. This interview has been edited for length.

Why did you first create the tax credit scholarships? Were you trying to come up with an alternative to vouchers? Were vouchers always the end goal?

… It is often erroneously said that “the tax credit scholarship program was created after the Florida Supreme Court ruled Jeb Bush’s voucher plan unconstitutional.” That is false. The litigation had only just begun when the Legislature created the tax credit scholarship. Most of us — including some very smart lawyers — thought that the governor’s voucher program would prevail in court.  … I would urge you to read this story about that ruling …: https://www.redefinedonline.org/2019/02/state-funded-scholarship-programs-then-and-now/

But I digress. The Bush v. Holmes opinion came out five years after the tax credit program was created. The opinion wasn’t the motivation for its creation.

The end goal is to empower low-income and working class parents to be able to choose the best educational environment for their children, regardless of who runs it. I am agnostic when it comes to what kind of school parents choose. I don’t believe private schools are better than district or charter schools. I believe that the parent needs to have the ability to find the right environment for their children. My “end goal” would be that economic station would not prevent any parent in Florida from doing just that.

Did Florida need to go through 20 years of becoming accustomed to these programs to get to this point today, where the governor now says, if it’s taxpayer-funded education, it’s public education no matter where you sit?

Maybe so. Twenty years ago the definition of “public education” was pretty simple. We raised taxpayer dollars to educate kids, and we gave every penny to the districts. The districts ran every school in a fairly “uniform” manner, and assigned kids by their ZIP code. Today the definition of public education is very different. We now have children attending district magnets, career academies, charters, virtual classes, dual enrollment college classes, and yes even private and faith-based school using taxpayer funds. Many students are now combining different providers and delivery methods at the same time. For example, a senior in high school might take two classes at their zoned district school, two classes through the Florida Virtual School, and two classes at the local state college—all paid for by the taxpayers.  People are surprised to learn that of the 2.8 million students in Florida educated by the taxpayers, over 30 percent now do not attend their zoned district school. In Miami Dade, it’s [nearly] 70 percent! So I agree completely with Gov. DeSantis on this question.

Are education savings accounts and portable per-student funding the next logical step in the movement? Or is it something else?

I believe ESAs are the next logical step. They give a parent the ability to customize a child’s education to a greater degree. We have seen this be very helpful in the Gardiner program. Money can be used for tuition, but also tutoring and specialized therapies. ESAs would be of great help to low-income families. Think about all the things that better off kids do outside of the classroom that help with their development. Music lessons, dance, sports, etc. Some of these activities are crucial in helping children develop into successful adults. ESAs could help low-income parents give their children the same advantages in this regard as better off families. ESAs would also promote a more efficient spending of educational dollars. Think of the example I gave of the student using three providers and two delivery methods. With an ESA, they could purchase those classes from each provider, and we could ensure that the taxpayer doesn’t overpay for any one of them. The key to ESAs is having excellent state oversight, particularly in the area of deciding what are proper expenses. Fortunately, Step Up For Students has raised $4 million in private funds over the past few years to develop an online platform that makes the administration of ESA possible with great accountability. It prevents funds from being spent on purposes that the state doesn’t allow.

How important were Jeb Bush and the Bush v. Holmes case to the state’s progression on school choice?

Jeb Bush has done more for educational choice — and K-12 reform overall — than any single person. First, people forget he started the state’s first charter school in Liberty City with Urban League President T. Willard Fair. Then in 1998 he ran for governor on a platform of K-12 reform and was the first governor candidate in the nation to propose giving poor families the ability to choose a private school. Opponents went nuts during the campaign, and did so again when he fulfilled his promise with the A+ Plan. Florida has made more progress in public education in the last 20 years than any other state. It’s indisputable, even though people deny it or try to ignore it. And it all started with Jeb Bush.

Should the state place accountability requirements on any school that receives state funding for education, as it requires on district schools and charters? Why or why not?

There are two kinds of accountability — regulatory accountability and market accountability. Regulatory accountability is using laws to force schools to act in a certain way. Market accountability is parents choosing to send their children to a school. For all kinds of schools, whether they be district, charter or scholarship schools, the key is finding a balance between these two forms of accountability.

District schools face large degrees of regulatory accountability. Generally, district schools in low-income areas face little market accountability, because parents can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with a different zoned school, and they can’t afford private school. I contrast that with district schools in better off areas, because parents can afford to move or pay for an alternative.

I personally believe that district schools are overregulated, and should be allowed much more flexibility to innovate and operate. I think we have wrung all the improvement we can out of district schools from regulatory accountability.

Charter schools and private schools serving scholarship children face the ultimate in market accountability, because if parents don’t choose them they don’t get funded. Because they face this aspect, which forces them to perform or go out of business, the regulatory accountability needed is less. But there is absolutely a need for regulatory accountability for them. With the scholarship schools, they must prove that they are in compliance with all health and safety laws. They must have employees undergo the same background checks as district schools. If they take $250,000 worth of scholarship students, they have to have an independent CPA come in and examine their books, and submit that report. They have to administer either the state assessment or a nationally recognized test approved by the state, and report those scores to Florida State every year. Scores are publicly reported by FSU down to the school level.

Critics of choice programs point to incidents of bad behavior and demand that the programs be shut down. But you can’t legislate away human frailty. Every day we read about bad behavior by employees in district schools, but we don’t advocate shutting down a school when it happens there. Now, if a private school hasn’t complied with the law, I say expel them. For example, if they haven’t done background checks on employees, that’s inexcusable. We need to ensure that the Florida DOE has enough resources and capacity to enforce the accountability laws that are already on the books

I often wish that critics of choice would apply their concerns across the entire K-12 landscape. For example, some critics are upset that the law doesn’t require private schools serving scholarship students to employ teachers with college degrees. But they don’t want to hear that there’s many teachers in public schools without college degrees, especially in district schools serving low-income children. For schools in Orange County serving more than 80 percent low-income students, 39 percent of teachers missed between 11 and 17 days of school, and 14 percent missed more than 18 days of school. Substitutes in Orange County can be hired with only a high school or GED degree. In Duval County high-poverty schools, 41 percent of teachers missed between 11 and 17 days of school, and 29 percent missed more than 18 days. Here’s the source for that:



Your own paper did an excellent piece on the challenges with substitutes. Now understand, I’m not saying that the districts are to blame — they’re doing the best they can. I’m just saying that if we are concerned about teachers without college degrees, let’s find out how bad the problem is an all types of schools and find a solution.

Every year Step Up makes suggested to the Legislature to improve the accountability of the choice programs. We will continue to do so every year.

A mother’s plea for education choice


Editor’s note: This is a transcript of the moving speech Shareka Wright gave at Gov. Ron DeSantis’s education scholarship event at Calvary City Christian Academy & Preschool Feb. 15 in Orlando.

Good morning. These are my two boys. This is Zion, he’s 8. Jayden, he’s 6.

Shareka Wright with son Jayden on her right and Zion on her left

I’m a single mother of three. I drive a garbage truck for the city of Orlando, usually working more than 60 hours a week. I’m doing it to send my two youngest sons to private school. We live paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes I have to choose between buying food and paying tuition.

I choose private school because Zion and Jayden were struggling so much in their public school last year. They were bringing home D’s and F’s. Zion had a substitute teacher for his entire second grade year and fell way behind. Jayden was bullied in kindergarten by the very kids in his school and was afraid of having his lunch money taken every day.

I found Miracle Grace Academy here in Orlando, and I knew it was the right place for my boys. We applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, but sadly we were left on the waiting list. There isn’t enough funding for all the families in Florida who need these scholarships. My boys are among almost 13,000 students on the waiting list this school year. There are 1,200 just in Orange County.

Miracle Grace is wonderful. Zion and Jayden have shown so much improvement. They’re getting A’s and B’s now. They get along with everyone. They have learned discipline and spirituality. But I don’t have the money to keep up with the tuition, and the school’s patience can’t last forever. That is why I’m calling on lawmakers to work with the governor, Ron DeSantis, to fund the scholarship program so that families like mine won’t have to wait and suffer.

Being a single mom of three boys is hard, but I never want my kids to feel like they can’t go to college, they can’t get a better education, where they have to stay in school and be bullied or to stay in school and just have a different sub every 30 days. I do my best. I always tell my boys, “Be better than me. Don’t be below me, don’t stop where I stopped at on achievements. Go higher than me. Make goals. Anything you set your mind to you can do.”

Being a single mom isn’t easy. It’s hard. I always do it because I remember I have three boys that depends on me. All they know is Mother makes the way. Money, money, money. I get up every morning, I thank God. I can thank my supervisors, they have worked with me, they have been patient with me because it’s stressful with me having all the stress on my back and operating a heavy garbage truck every day with no accidents, no fatalities. It’s hard. but to keep these two happy and to try to give them the best in life, and try to make them know that they can go to college, they can become doctors, lawyers, pastors, whatever they put their minds to be, I’ll do it every day with smiles and no regrets.

Commentary: Widen the circle, broaden the conversation

school choice
Parents rally outside the Florida Supreme Court in January 2016 to protect school choice options.

Recently, I was invited to a local coffee and conversation-type event in Florida between my former state representative and former neighbors who are predominantly white progressive women.

Then I was invited to a conversation at a late-night dinner event in New Jersey with five conservative white men.

Both discussions were more similar than different.

Both discussions involved topics about educational choice and branched off from there.

Both groups have heard a lot about people like me.

On the left, they like my work with the ACLU and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Then they hear that I organize parents who choose something other than their district school. That means I’m a union-buster out to destroy public education.

On the right, they like my advocacy for education choice , but then they learn I’m a democratic socialist. That means I’m trying to turn the United States into Venezuela.

Over coffee, I looked around and noticed all that we have in common – white, progressive, living in a highly valued neighborhood with stellar schools. And we could take time off to attend such an event in the middle of a workday.

Or between salon appointments.

Most women attending were against parental choice in education.

Of course. Our opponents are almost always privileged white liberals.

I watched these participants struggle to understand as I explained why I supported educational options for everyone, not just those who could afford it.

One mom tried to sum up their opposition.

“We support the democratization of the public school system,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means we support free public schools that are open to everyone.”

I smiled at them.

“We all know these schools aren’t free,” I said. “We pay for them in our rents and our mortgages.”

They stared at me.

“And our schools here don’t accept everyone. They only take kids from a particular ZIP code.”

“That’s not true!” one mother objected. “Our high school took Tony Dungy’s kids from Avila.”

I almost spit out my coffee. Tony Dungy is a black man, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a millionaire. Avila is a gated community north of town.

“That’s true,” other moms nodded in agreement. “They accepted Tony Dungy’s kids.”

“How nice of them,” I said. “But they don’t take kids from the projects around the corner. Do they?”


“Do any of you know anyone who desperately needs a good school for their children? Do you know at least one mom who can’t afford to move into this neighborhood, who’s trapped in her ZIP code and can’t afford private school?”


“If you met anyone like that, what would you say? How would you explain your position to them?”

More silence.

A few weeks later, in a very different conversation with conservative men, it didn’t take long before they found out I leaned far to the left. Naturally, they wanted to know my views on transgender issues.

Instead of speaking for a group of people who do a much better job speaking for themselves, I tried a different tactic.

“That’s why we support educational options for all students, right?” I asked. “So every student, even those you can’t quite understand yet, will find a school that’s the best fit for them. Choice is beginning to accommodate students based on gender identity – and really, isn’t our message that we all benefit when all our kids are succeeding in school?”

Lots of mumbles and one guy looked at the ceiling.

“Do any of you know anyone who identifies with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth? Have you talked to them about this?”


“If you met anyone like that, would you listen? Would you try to hear their point of view?”

More silence.

Perhaps we should open any and all conversations to include those who’ve typically been excluded. If you’re convinced you know where you stand on any issue, including educational choice, perhaps you should talk to someone who’s affected by it. Invite them into a conversation. Ask them their opinions, and then listen for a while.

We’d all learn so much, and I could go back to answering only for myself.

The human face of education

Rarely do we hear about what those on the front lines of education think – the parents and students.

If you could illustrate media coverage of education choice, it would resemble a bird’s-eye view of a vast industrial complex: machinery greased by politics, walls whose mortar is money, and a maze of piping and tubing to deliver hot and cold takes.

What’s often missing is the human element.

Sure, most stories about choice focus on the actors surrounding the programs: legislators, school board members, teachers union officials, think tank wonks, activists. The primary concern is how policy affects institutions, and which side is winning the debate.

Rarely do we hear about what those on the front lines think – the parents and students.

I know this because I used to be part of the problem. I was a newspaper editorial writer and editor for 25 years before joining Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. In my former life, I wrote dozens of opinion pieces on school choice, almost always relying on the input of legislative combatants. They were the decision-makers and influencers who were well-versed in the details and arguments, and usually easily accessible.

Now, having descended from the ivory tower and moved to the other side of the media lens, I’m tasked with reaching out to families who benefit from education choice to learn their stories. The difference in perspective has been eye-opening.

Parents who support choice are not ideologues. Most are extremely practical; they want what’s best for their child, not what’s advantageous for a certain side. Many will eschew partisan and identity politics to vote their naked self-interest.

They express frustration with a school system that is unresponsive to their needs, often while acknowledging they have no animus toward traditional public education. Indeed, parents will say they themselves succeeded in public schools, or even have other children who are doing well in a traditional setting. But the current setup isn’t working for one or more of their kids, and they are desperate to find alternatives that work.

Often, a parent will be moved to tears describing the obstacles he or she faces, be they bureaucratic or financial, or when attempting to express the relief that comes with seeing a child thrive in a new environment made possible by a choice program.

These families come in so many shapes and sizes, with so many individualized needs, it’s impossible to fit them all under one rubric. They need solutions, not excuses. Their stories need to be part of the narrative.

That’s not to say that pols and professionals have no stake in the issue, or nothing to contribute. Or that there aren’t legitimate questions about the impacts on school districts, or public education writ large.

Furthermore, although newspapers and media platforms publish letters and columns from parents of students in choice schools, rarely do you see those parents and their anguished pleas for help in the news stories and house opinion pieces, intertwined in the narrative with the professionals.

The media have no problem putting faces on other policy disputes, such as how welfare reform will affect the single mother on public assistance, or the working family of four living paycheck to paycheck who lacks health insurance. The same desire to humanize should be applied to education reform.

Keeping the focus on politicians makes it easier for people to choose sides based on who’s supporting or opposing: “Well, if he’s for it, then I’m against it,” or vice-versa. Seeing a sympathetic civilian might force more folks to give the issue additional thought.

A staple of local education coverage involves going into traditional public school classrooms and talking to students in order to highlight academic achievement, or an interesting new program (such as a robotics lab) the district is eager to publicize. And that’s great. They deserve the attention.

Yet, the same curiosity isn’t applied to choice students – not even when they’re gathered in one convenient place. In January 2016, some 10,000 parents, students and school administrators, along with several pastors from around the state, marched in Tallahassee to protest a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association aimed at dismantling the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. (Later that year, a state appeals court affirmed the constitutionality of the scholarship program). The media coverage almost uniformly excluded interviews with the families who would be most affected by changes in the system.

Assignment desk editors: In 2017-18, nearly 450,000 students in Florida attended a public charter school or used a tax credit scholarship or ESA to attend a private school. That’s a lot of stories to be told.

podcastED: ‘We will see widespread school choice when we can educate teachers on the truth’

teacher unions
Rebecca Friedrichs is the author of ‘Standing Up To Goalith’ and joins us for an interview on the latest episode of podcastED.

Rebecca Friedrichs is the fearless California public school teacher best known for being lead plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the high-profile lawsuit that – until the unexpected death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 – was destined to end the union practice of forcibly collecting “agency fees” from non-union members. (Subsequently, last June, Janus v. AFSCME did end the practice.)

But what people may not know about Friedrichs is how much her support for educational choice fueled that crusade.

In her just-released autobiography, “Standing Up To Goliath,” Friedrichs details her rise from rank-and-file teacher to anti-union activist, including the role that choice played. In an interview with redefinED, she offers more insight into the teachers-and-choice piece, including why more teachers aren’t clamoring to expand options that, she says, would benefit them as much as students and parents.

Listen on iTunes

“We will see widespread school choice when we can educate teachers on the truth,” Friedrichs said in the interview. Once teachers see “that these choice schools really are not bad, that charter schools really do have to close down within a few years if they don’t get the job done, that public schools go on and on and on and on for years even though they’re failing … once teachers know the truth, they’ll be on our side.”

Friedrichs describes herself as conservative. But “school choice” isn’t conservative, she said, no matter how often it’s often portrayed that way by critics and the press.

“That’s just another lie promoted by the unions,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re apolitical, you’re a Democrat, you’re a Republican, you’re a libertarian, you don’t vote. Everybody I know, once they understand school choice, and they realize it’s just what’s best for the child, they’re all for school choice.”

Friedrichs’s support is personal. At different points in her life, she said, she needed educational options for each of her sons. For Ben, her youngest, no option materialized, which left Ben in vulnerable situations and Friedrichs, then a single mom, crying all the way to work. For Kyle, an option did come through, just as drugs and other issues had him spiraling down.

Said Friedrichs, “School. Choice. Saved. His. Life.”

Friedrichs shares more details in the podcast, with a bonus for Major League Baseball fans. Kyle, now thriving as a pitcher in the minor leagues (in the Oakland A’s system), recently got a chance to face future Hall of Famer Mike Trout

You’ll either have to buy Friedrichs’ book or listen to the podcast to find out what happened. 😊

New school choice group launches to advocate for children and families

Erika Donalds

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A new organization aimed at ensuring families can choose the best education environment for their children launched today with an announcement from the group’s founder and chairwoman.

Former Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds said the School Choice Movement will focus on improving and expanding school choice in all its forms, adding that she became aware as a parent and a school board member that many families have insufficient options for school choice.

“Children are either on a waiting list for a scholarship or a charter school or they don’t qualify for one of the scholarships that are available, and they can’t afford a private school,” Donalds said. “Our goal is to give parents multiple high-quality options for their students.”

Joining Donalds in the effort are former Indian River School Board member Shawn Frost and former Duval County School Board member Scott Shine. Frost, who is a co-founder with Donalds and past president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, will serve as the organization’s advocacy director. Shine, who has served as a member of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, will be a member of the executive board.

The group plans to advocate for school choice and the expansion of school choice options during the upcoming legislative session.

“We now have a governor who is very supportive of school choice and an education commissioner who is a tireless school choice advocate,” said Donalds, whose husband, Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, serves on the Florida House Education Committee and is vice chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations Committee. “We want to make sure the expansion of school choice is No. 1 on the agenda.”

The group also plans to sponsor a speakers’ bureau and appoint regional directors who will fan out across the state in a grassroots effort to talk directly with families.

“We need to find a different way to reach parents with information about their options,” said Donalds, who helped establish Mason Classical Academy, a public charter school in Naples. “We also need to correct misinformation that’s out there about choice schools.

Among the myths Donalds plans to combat: the narrative that choice schools divert money from the public school system; the idea that charter schools underperform traditional public schools; and the notion that charter schools are not held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools.

“For me, this is a moral issue our society needs to solve,” Donalds said. “Hoping students can play catch-up later in life is not an option.”

Watch the School Choice Movement launch video here for more information.

redefinED also spoke to Donalds after the James Madison Institute luncheon about her new organization. You can listen to that audio below.


VIDEO: “I don’t want her to be just a number”

Celethia Davis, center, and her family pose with Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D-Jacksonville) at Piney Grove Academy’s MLK Day celebration in Lauderdale Lakes.

Celethia Davis, whose daughter, Brianna, is on a wait list for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, traveled from Jacksonville to Ft. Lauderdale for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appearance Monday at Piney Grove Boys Academy. The new governor used the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to underscore his commitment to expanding educational choice. Davis is hoping Brianna, who is struggling at her neighborhood school, will be able to attend a faith-based, college-prep school.