A weekend interview with ...
... John Kirtley (second from left), vice-chairman of the board of the Alliance for School Choice and head of the Florida Education Freedom Foundation. The Alliance For School Choice is a national organization, and the Florida Education Freedom Foundation a state based one, that have the same mission: bringing more K-12 educational options to low income parents. Kirtley spoke via e-mail with reporter Jeff Solochek about school choice and corporate tax credit scholarships in Florida. Please note, relating to the wording of the questions, Kirtley stated, "I strongly object to the word 'voucher' in the questions, since it is such a demonized word. It's not even technically correct. The tax credit scholarship isn't a voucher, while Bright Futures and VPK are."
What is the importance of education vouchers and the corporate tax credit program you helped establish?
Many people are stunned to learn that less than 50% of minority children graduate high school in Florida. According the Harvard Civil Rights Project [recently moved to UCLA], if you are a black male in our state, you have a 38% chance of graduating. Prospects for dropouts are bleak: low wages, prison, or even an early death from violent crime. I don't state this to place blame on anyone, and in fact the public schools are making great progress in this area. The challenges facing those trying to educate low-income children in Florida are almost incomprehensible: children come from dangerous neighborhoods, there are gangs and other negative influences. Families come from numerous countries and often English isn't spoken at home. Over 100 languages are spoken in the Dade public schools! If there is one thing that can be said of low-income children in Florida, it's that their situations are not uniform.
Some children are just not going to thrive in their assigned public school. That doesn't mean that school is a failure. It just means it's not working for that child. I'm a graduate of Fort Lauderdale High School, and I couldn't have been better prepared. But I personally saw kids who dropped out because my school wasn't right for them. Sometimes parents need choices of schools to find one that will work. All parents in Florida have school choice—unless they can't afford it. If you have enough money, you can move to a neighborhood with a public school that fits your kid. Or you can pay for tuition to a private school that works for them. Only those without the means to move or pay tuition have no choices.
The old model of education, where we assign kids to schools based just on their zip codes, needs to change--and it is. Public schools systems in Florida are doing a good job of creating new delivery models: open enrollment, magnets, career academies, charter schools and virtual schools. But sometimes even one of those won't work for a child. They might need the environment offered by a school not within that system. Or those public options may not be available near them.
The tax credit scholarship program is just a way to give low income parents power they never had. It doesn't tell them where to send their kids. It serves less than one percent of the kids in the public schools. But if your kid is in that fraction, it's the most important thing in your life. In December we had an event in Miami where a young woman spoke, Melody Cherflis. In eighth grade she had less than a 1.0 grade point and was going to drop out. She is the first to say it wasn't her school's fault. She got the scholarship, found the right school, and now she's in college. If not for the scholarship she'd be a statistic.
We often hear the argument that the program is a drain on public school funding. How do you respond?
The biggest fiscal drain on public schools are dropouts. The most generous estimates show that we graduate 70% of our kids overall. Last year about 240,000 kids entered 9th grade. About 70,000 of them won't graduate. If you assume they drop out in 11th grade, then at any time there's 140,000 kids missing from the schools. The state sends districts about $7,300 for every kid that shows up. That means that dropouts are costing the public schools over $1 billion a year.
In the tax credit program, over 80% of the kids are in 8th grade or below. There just aren't that many private high schools in low income areas, and most of our parents can't afford the difference between the scholarship and tuition in the higher grades. These kids leave our program and go back to public school—and stay in. It's part of the solution, not part of the problem. Last year the legislature gave the public schools $17 billion. The scholarship program was $88 million, or one half of one percent of that
Why are you and others seeking to so dramatically expand the program now, as the state is grappling with declining finances?
The program can't serve any more kids under the current cap. We had 30,000 kids apply for our 20,000 slots this year, and we certainly could have had more applications. The proposed bill only grows the program at 5,000 kids per year for the next five years. At the end of that period, we would have 45,000 kids, or 1.7% of public school kids. It would still be small. The reason that we need a multi-year commitment is to convince the participating schools to reserve places for these kids—they need to have confidence that the program is going to grow and be around.
This program actually helps the state budget and the current fiscal crisis. Because the maximum scholarship by law is several thousand dollars less than what the state spends per child in the public schools, the state saves huge amounts of money. Florida TaxWatch and The Collins Center For Public Policy issued separate reports estimating the ten year savings from the program at a minimum of $600 million. If the state eliminated the program tomorrow, the legislature would have to come up with an additional $60 million for this year alone, and this assumes no additional costs to comply with the class size amendment when 20,000 kids return to public schools.
Some critics say they would have fewer problems with allowing students to use vouchers to attend private schools if they also would take the FCAT, to show the education they are receiving is truly better. What do you think about that?
I think it is crucial to show both low income parents and taxpayers that the program is working. We strongly endorsed Senator King's accountability bill, passed in 2006, that requires testing for children in the scholarship program. Every year scholarship children must take a nationally recognized, norm referenced test approved by the DOE, or they may take the FCAT itself. The tests approved by the DOE must be comparable to the FCAT. Every year the scores must be reported to the University of Florida, and UF will each year report on the learning gains of the children. UF will also compare them to comparable public school students, including a control group of public schools kids that applied for the scholarship but didn't use it. It looks like over 60% of the children are taking the Stanford 10, which is actually incorporated into the FCAT, so UF will be able to do excellent comparisons.
There's also the whole church-state issue, and the concern over whether the public funds should go to religious institutions. Is there a way for the state to reconcile that?
This issue was actually already settled by the U.S. Supreme Court as it pertains to the Federal constitution. The court ruled that a K-12 scholarship program from Cleveland was constitutional, and the judges reasoned it was just like the GI Bill. Veterans have always taken the GI Bill and used it at faith based colleges--they have even used it to study at seminaries. The crucial fact to the court was that the students had a choice among many schools — faith based and secular — so the government wasn't promoting any particular religion. It was the same with the K-12 program.
The Florida constitution has a stronger prohibition that was born of anti-Catholic prejudice in the 19th century. The biggest potential offenders of this clause are Bright Futures college scholarships and the Voluntary Pre-K program. Tens of thousands of students attend faith based schools under these programs. The ACLU even threatened the legislature with a suit when they implemented VPK. But they never filed, probably because of the horrible public opinion it would bring upon them.
Should someone sue on any of these programs and the Florida Supreme Court issue an opinion that contradicts the U.S. Supreme Court, it would be appealed to the higher court. Given the makeup of the higher court now, the state would surely prevail.
Lots of low-income and minority parents support vouchers and similar programs. Yet their seemingly natural consistency of teachers and Democrats don't always agree. Where do you think the disconnect comes from?
First, the low income parents we serve are the constituents of legislators—of both parties. It has just taken some time to connect legislators with their constituents and educate them on how these parents feel about choice. Parents vote on this issue. Last year we put out a call to parents on the tax credit scholarship program to come to Tallahassee and show their support. Over 4,500 showed up—over 700 slept on buses overnight to be there. Some state Senators have over 2,000 kids in their district on the program. The circle of influence of these kids' parents can produce 10,000 votes very quickly. That's a lot of votes in a primary.
Last Fall former Congresswoman Carrie Meek's non-profit became the third scholarship provider in this program approved by the state. She now has over 1,000 scholarship children in Miami. She tells us that everywhere she goes in Miami, people stop her and thank her for the scholarship program. Having one of the most revered Democrats in the state actually administering the program speaks volumes.
This program now has bipartisan support, and it is growing. It was passed in 2001 with one Democrat in the whole legislature voting for it. This year the legislation to expand the program will be co-sponsored by several African American Democrats and we are working hard to get many more Democrats to support the parents who live in their districts who want options.
What are the main obstacles or concerns facing the growth of the voucher movement in Florida over the coming year?
The main obstacle we face is the one faced by all education reformers, no matter what their emphasis. It is very hard to get some people to break out of old patterns — legislators, educators, the press — even parental choice advocates. But if we are going to make progress on this crucial problem, we have to be willing to consider new ideas, new methods, and even new partners. If twenty years from now we are still graduating less than half our minority children, the blame will rest with all of us.