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.