If there’s one thing Republicans have right, it’s about the power of competition to shake up unresponsive bureaucracies, including those that oversee public school systems.
So says prominent African-American pastor Manuel Sykes, who had Tampa Bay political circles buzzing last week amid an announcement that he would be moving to the Republican Party. The move may have been precipitated by local issues like local Democrats’ efforts to stifle his run for Congress, but it’s also another indicator of political crosswinds that have buffeted left-leaning school choice supporters for years.
Sykes, the longtime pastor at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, has long been a school choice supporter – and, until recently, an active Democrat. His church runs a school that caters to low-income students on scholarship programs, many of whom struggled in the schools they left behind.
“If the Democrats take a stand against vouchers, to me, that’s too one-sided,” Sykes says during a podcast with redefinED. “It shows a lack of analysis, because we have children that have been failing in school since I arrived on the scene back in 1993.”
Back then, he says, he was working with a group of religious leaders who were trying to bring programs developed by the National Institute of Direct Instruction into public schools. After being rebuffed by school district officials, he saw the potential benefits of giving people options outside the traditional school system.
“Many times a bureaucracy has its own internal self-preservation instinct,” he said, adding: “One thing that I truly believe that Gov. (Rick) Scott got right is that competition makes people do better. When they know that they’re not the only show in town, they tend to do better if they want to stay in business.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s all-in for unfettered free markets. He says people still need to be protected, and that he’s going to continue to support social programs like Medicaid that can help improve life for poor people and help them transition into jobs. Drawing a contrast with fellow Republicans, he says, “When you are helping corporations to thrive, you also have to help people to survive.”
Our interview also touches on his decision not to endorse Scott for governor, his dispute with the state NAACP, and the “sense of betrayal” in some quarters when news of his party change began to make the rounds. To understand some of his comments on political maneuvers related to his scuttled run for Florida’s thirteenth congressional district, see more background here.