Author Archive | John Kirtley

Reflections on the Florida tax credit scholarship’s 15th birthday

Note: Step Up For Students helps administer Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. It also publishes this blog and employs its editor.

I’m not a baseball fan, but I love the movie “Bull Durham.” In the film, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon compliments Kevin Costner for approaching the minor league home run record. Costner remarks that it’s a dubious honor – it means he’s spent an awful long time trying to get to the majors. That’s how I feel sometimes when I realize I have been working for the cause of parental choice in education for 20 years. If I were any good at this, shouldn’t the job be done by now?

Nothing like the parental choice movement to make you appreciate incremental progress. But on the 15th anniversary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), I look around and see so much to be thankful for. When the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush created the FTC in 2001, school choice in Florida was in its infancy. The definition of “public education” was pretty simple: raise taxpayer dollars to educate kids, give all the money to the districts – which run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner – and assign kids by their ZIP codes.

How far we have come since then. Today, more than 30 percent of K-12 children funded by the taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters and virtual schools. They take classes under dual enrollment programs at colleges and community colleges. They now even combine providers and delivery methods at the same time. And yes, some children even attend private schools, including faith-based ones.

The FTC is a small but critical part of this new definition of public education. This year the program is serving 92,000 children, who are attending more than 1,600 private schools chosen by their parents. This sounds like a lot—and it’s more than I ever thought we would serve – but it’s still a pretty small number in context. There are 2.8 million students in Florida’s public schools (including magnets and charters). So the FTC still represents only 3 percent of that total. But to each scholarship family, it’s the most important thing in the world. Research shows the FTC kids are the poorest, and poorest performers, in their public schools when they leave. The scholarship empowers poor parents to find an environment that better suits their children’s unique needs. Continue Reading →

The teacher union’s amusing hypocrisy about Big $ in politics

Editor’s note: This post was originally published as an op-ed in today’s Orlando Sentinel. The state’s tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

follow the moneyThe politics of school choice are particularly unforgiving these days, but one of the messages being sold in this year’s Florida legislative session is amusingly hypocritical.

The backdrop is a bill to strengthen a scholarship that for the past 12 years has provided some economically disadvantaged Florida children access to private schools. Though the effort has been cast by opponents as a dramatic expansion, the bill headed for a House floor vote on Friday has been changed so it no longer contains either an increase in the statewide cap or a sales-tax credit — two of the most contentious parts. It’s worth remembering that this scholarship is the only choice program with a statewide cap.

In politics, though, the size of the debate doesn’t always conform to the size of the legislation. The Florida Education Association has launched an aggressive campaign to block it, including a requisite attempt to discredit the supporters. But what is especially entertaining is the FEA’s feigned shock that scholarship advocates might invest in political campaigns involving Democrats.

The FEA is distributing a video from a 2011 school-choice conference in Berkeley, Calif., that features Doug Tuthill, who is president of the nonprofit that administers the tax-credit program and a former chapter president for FEA. The conference was put together by a group that includes many liberal academicians who appreciate the historical role teachers unions have played in providing financial support for Democrats. But they asked him how to break that grip because they are dismayed the money now comes with a prohibition on voting for private school choice.

Tuthill’s answer was honest and direct: Invest in legislative races, just like the union does.

This is an unsurprising statement to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with modern politics, but FEA Vice President Joanne McCall was aghast: “This video reveals that it’s all about the money.”

Now I do not defend the way big money is impacting modern politics or the coarse campaigns that are often a byproduct, but to be lectured on the evils of campaign spending by the FEA is surreal. It is the FEA’s primary political weapon. Since 2002, the FEA and its national affiliates have invested $20.1 million in Florida campaigns, according to the Florida Division of Elections. Its money is so integral to Florida Democratic legislators that no one raises an eyebrow when all the party’s House and Senate members meet, as they did on April 2, at FEA headquarters. The low-income parents for whom the school-choice movement fights don’t have money for campaigns. I am honored to fight for them and to help their voices be heard. Continue Reading →

John Patrick Julien, warrior for parental school choice, RIP

Rep. Julien

Rep. Julien

Some days you hear someone say, “make the most of every day, you never know when it will be your last” – and you think, what a cliché. Then some days you learn something that makes that sentence all too real.

I only heard last week that former state Rep. John Patrick Julien was ill. He passed away Friday from liver cancer. Apparently he only learned of his diagnosis a few weeks ago.

JPJ, as we called him, was a warrior for parental school choice. He came to the legislature as the bipartisan wave was building for choice. We had gone from no Democrats in the House supporting the Step Up program to half of them. We had gone from no members of the Black Caucus in support to a majority.

But JPJ still took heat for his position. Those who opposed school choice would threaten to take him out. He didn’t flinch. As he told me several times, “Why wouldn’t I support it? It’s the right thing to do.” He undervalued the simple, strong integrity of that statement.

JPJ was always willing, at a moment’s notice,  to help spread the choice gospel. In just one example, when a large delegation of legislators came to Miami from Tennessee two years ago to learn about school choice, it was JPJ we turned to. We happily let a segment scheduled for 20 minutes go into triple overtime as members of the Tennessee Black Caucus peppered him with questions. “Is it OK to do this?” they asked. JPJ had the right answers, and the right attitude.

Listen to the podcast JPJ did with Ron Matus and you’ll see what I mean. Continue Reading →

Parental school choice spurs surprising reactions from advocates of the poor

As a white person from Iowa, I am always hesitant to write about the racial aspects of ed reform and parental school choice. I feel it is always better to have others with more credibility speak of it. But this weekend I saw two things that compelled me to write.

Kirtley: On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's great speech, a black U.S. attorney general working for the nation's first black president filed a lawsuit to halt a program that is helping low-income black families in Louisiana choose a better school for their children.

Kirtley: On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s great speech, a black U.S. attorney general working for the nation’s first black president filed a lawsuit to halt a program that is helping low-income black families in Louisiana choose a better school for their children.

On Saturday, I read that the U.S. Justice Department is suing the state of Louisiana to block vouchers for students in public school districts that are under old federal desegregation orders. The statewide voucher program, officially called the Louisiana Scholarship Program, lets low-income students in public schools graded C, D or F attend private schools at taxpayer expense. This year, 22 of the 34 school systems under desegregation orders are sending some students to private schools on vouchers.

The Justice Department’s primary argument is that letting students leave for private schools can disrupt the racial balance in public school systems that desegregation orders are meant to protect. Sounds like a good idea, right?

But here’s the thing: according to the Louisiana Department of Education, 86 percent of the children on the program are black. Only 9 percent are white.

If roughly 90 percent of the kids on the program are black, I don’t really understand how them moving to private schools that would better serve them would worsen segregation in the public schools. Are they leaving schools that are mostly white? If so, should they be forced to stay there even though they aren’t being well served? How would you explain that to their parents?

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s great speech, a black attorney general working for a black president filed a lawsuit to halt a program that is helping low-income black families in Louisiana choose a better school for their children. This law was not just backed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal,  but was sponsored and supported by numerous black Democratic legislators. Half of the Senate Democratic caucus and a quarter of the House Democratic caucus in the Louisiana legislature backed the initial expansion of the program from its New Orleans origins.
Continue Reading →

Peter Flanigan, a guiding light of the school choice movement, R.I.P.

Peter Flanigan

Peter Flanigan

Peter Flanigan, one of the giants of the education reform movement, passed away last week at age 90. The Wall Street Journal featured this tribute in its Saturday edition.

Peter unknowingly recruited me into the parental school choice movement before even meeting me. My first (and accidental) exposure to non-public education was in 1996 through a program Peter established, the Patrons Program. This program matched business people with individual Catholic schools in poor parts of New York City. I, along with my good friend John Griffin, were matched with Christ the King School in the South Bronx. We gave it money, sure – but it gave me an education.

For the first time I met poor parents who would do anything to see their children get a good education. To pay for the $3,200 tuition, these parents would work two jobs and even cut off their TV service. They did this when there was a free public school nearby. They didn’t say the public schools weren’t any good; they just weren’t right for their children. This experience prompted me to start a private scholarship program in Tampa Bay in 1998. We received 12,000 applications for our 700 scholarships. I plunged into the movement and never looked back.

I finally met Peter in 1999 when I joined the board of Children First America, a non-profit dedicated to bringing more school choice to low-income parents. He was already a board member, of course. I was amazed what he had already accomplished in life. The Journal account doesn’t mention his stint as a naval pilot in World War Two. Can you imagine a life in which that’s a throwaway item? I had the great pleasure of both working with Peter and for him; in 2001 I left my business to become president of CFA. Peter’s advice and guidance to me during this period were invaluable.

Peter remained a guiding light of the school choice movement to the end.  He remained on the boards – and was a vital, contributing member – of all the successor organizations to CFA until his passing. Other than perhaps John Walton, I can think of no other person who has done more to empower low-income parents to do what is best for their kids.

I’m sure they’re together now, comparing notes on the movement’s progress. I only hope we can live up to their examples and their expectations.

A longtime parental choice advocate backpedals like a cornerback in coverage

I was wrong.

For 15 years I have dedicated myself to empowering low-income families to choose the best school for their kids. I was the strongest advocate for parental choice you would ever meet.

But I was wrong.

For almost two decades I swatted away false arguments from choice opponents. “There’s no evidence students do well in choice programs.”  No, the consensus of studies show they do. “Creams the best low-income students away from public schools.” Sorry, studies show just the opposite.

But the scales have now fallen from my eyes. I have to leave the movement. Why?

I just learned that vouchers will mean the end of high school football. Yes, that’s right – giving low-income parents choices will mean the end of that great American tradition – and I just can’t tolerate that.

You see, high school football used to be the most important thing in my life. When I was 15 and my father told me our family was moving from Iowa to Florida, my only question was, “Does the high school have a good quarterback”? When I was 17, the only thing I wanted for my birthday was a case of Gatorade (three practices a day, in full pads, in the summer in South Florida). Some of my fondest memories are of taking the field for the Fort Lauderdale High School Flying L’s. Yes, that was our team name.

Given this background, I hope my fellow choice advocates will understand my abdication.

A group called Save Texas Football has just come out with a video explaining how choice will kill high school football in Texas. As I watched it, I was so impressed by the quality of the message and the production, I said to myself, “There’s no way a grassroots, amateur group did this.” Sure enough, the group behind the video is Progress Texas, a 501C4 advocacy group that is run by veterans of Texas Democratic politics. C4s don’t have to reveal their donors, but I’ll buy you a hot dog at this Friday’s game if the major funder of this group isn’t the Texas teachers union. Continue Reading →

School choice movement can’t give grenades to opponents

Editor’s note: Tuesday’s New York Times story about tax-credit scholarship programs sparked a flurry of reaction from leading school choice supporters, including John Kirtley, who chairs Step Up for Students, the non-profit that administers the tax credit program in Florida. In a blog post today, the Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer took exception to some of the guidelines Kirtley proposed for other state programs, and also raised concerns about what he calls the “hyper-centralization” of Florida’s program. Here is Kirtley’s response:

First, I want to thank Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute for his engaged dialogue on the vital subject of tax credit scholarship program design. I also want to say that I have been an admirer of Cato for over a decade, and even attended its wonderful “Cato University” in the late 1990’s.

The main point of my response is this: as someone who is trying to pass, grow and protect parental choice laws in Florida and across the country, I live in the real world of legislation and politics. We are trying to change something that has been the same for 150 years. Those who don’t want change are extremely powerful, well-funded, and have willing allies in the press. We have to fight hand-to-hand legislative and political combat state by state. And we can’t hand our opponents grenades with which to blow us up.

Adam is absolutely correct that you can only drive so much excellence through top-down accountability. Our scholarship organization’s president, Doug Tuthill, and I constantly talk about the “new definition” of public education we would love to see — a transformation from “East Germany” (pre-Berlin Wall fall) to “West Germany.” We see a system where end users allocate resources and choose among many providers and delivery methods – public or private. Of course I understand, as Adam asserts, that such a system will produce better results. I’m a businessman! Or at least I used to be, before this movement took most of my time. But we can’t wave a magic wand and create that transformation overnight. And as in any free market system, there is a role — though many will argue over the extent – to be played by government.

Adam points out there is more fraud and waste in public schools than in scholarship programs. So what? We’re held to a higher standard. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact. In Florida, when stories of public school teachers having sex with students was the topic of Letterman and Leno monologues, one of the most respected newspaper columnists in Florida blasted vouchers because a private school principal took a bunch of young girls unsupervised to Disney World. There weren’t even any scholarship kids at the school. Another newspaper called for the repeal of the tax-credit program because (among other things) not every school had submitted documentation of their fire inspections. At the same time, the Orlando Sentinel (to its credit) ran an article about public schools in the area that were so out of fire code they had to hire fire marshals to stand watch at them. No one called for those schools to be shut down.

The point is we operate in a zero tolerance environment in Florida. Opponents to choice are desperate for examples that the program isn’t being operated properly. They would love to find a family that makes too much money to qualify, or to learn household incomes or sizes weren’t documented properly. And it would hurt us if they did. Continue Reading →

Program design is crucial for tax credit scholarships

Stephanie Saul offered an indictment in the New York Times today of tax credit scholarship programs that have, in my opinion, serious design flaws. These flaws were almost guaranteed to provide examples like Saul found for her article. How lawmakers and, just as importantly, parental choice advocates respond is an important test of their credibility.

Not much of what Saul reported is new, though that makes it no less troubling. Georgia’s law sets no boundaries on the income of scholarship recipients and no limit on the amount of the scholarship itself. It requires no financial audits, no attempt at any meaningful data collection. Many of the contributions are steered through schools and parents with a self-interest to underwrite the tuition of their own students. In Georgia and two other states she covered, Pennsylvania and Arizona, the public has little idea whether students are learning because no tests are required and no academic data collected.

The story was loaded with powerful anecdotes of abuse, but employed surprisingly pedestrian journalistic standards in its attempt to portray those practices as national in scope. The punchline in what newspaper writers call the nut graph – that “the programs are a charade” – was qualified as a  question raised by “some” private school administrators. The characterization of programs becoming “enmeshed in politics” was leavened again with the word “some.” How many of the eight states with tax credit scholarship laws “collect little information”? You guessed right. The answer was “some.”

To her credit, Saul did acknowledge that at least one state has different statutory and regulatory standards: “In Florida, where the scholarships are strictly controlled to make sure they go to poor families, only corporations are eligible for the tax credits, eliminating the chance of parents donating for their own benefit. Also, all scholarships are handled by one nonprofit organization, and its fees are limited to 3 percent of donations. Florida also permits the scholarships to move with the students if they elect to change schools.”

The Florida scholarship program, as readers of this blog should be aware, is where the creators of this blog work. So we certainly have a self-interest in seconding such an assessment but also an intimate appreciation of the tension that appropriately exists with education options that have one foot in the private market and the other in the public treasury. We want to give the parents of poor and struggling school children something they could not otherwise afford – a private school learning option – and we recognize that with tax-credited funding comes public responsibility.

Finding the right balance between regulation and market is no simple feat. But our prescriptions for a well-designed law are as follows: Continue Reading →