A weekend interview with ...
... Doug Tuthill, the new president of the Florida School Choice Fund. He's also a former teacher and president of the Pinellas County teachers union, and he helped start the IB program at St. Petersburg High. He spoke with reporter Ron Matus about his new post.
Why did you take this job?
I'm a passionate believer in equal opportunity in education. I'm excited by the fact that this program is providing more opportunity for low-income families. I think providing more diversity for learning options for families increases the possibility that more kids will be successful.
What does it say about the political dynamics on the issue of vouchers that you're a former teachers union leader and now you're heading up the biggest voucher organization in Florida?
What you're finding is that people are increasingly less interested in fighting and more interested in helping kids. There has been a lot of division in this state, a lot of contentious debates in the education world. Spending time fighting each other doesn't really help children. ...
I want to bring people together and urge them to stop fighting. I don't think the enemy is educators or parents or public schools or private schools. The enemy is ignorance and poverty and hopelessness and despair.
You have been critical of vouchers. You wrote in the 1990s that vouchers were "based on false assumptions and faulty logic." When did you change your view on vouchers and why?
I've never changed my views on school choice. I've never changed my views on my passionate commitment to public education. And frankly, I've never changed my views on the importance of teachers working together, through teachers unions, to improve public education. There are public-private partnerships that I would oppose today. It really depends on the nature of that program ...
When we first started the IB program at St. Pete High, it was very controversial. It was one of the first choice voucher programs around … Our argument was all we're trying to do is create more learning options (for kids). Over time, the IB program became less and less controversial. And after 10 years or so, it was accepted as the normal part of the strengthening of public school education. That's what's happening (with charter schools, virtual schools and vouchers). ...
I wrote a piece (in the St. Petersburg Times) in the '90s about a universal voucher program that was being proposed that had no accountability systems involved with it. And I thought it was based on faulty logic. The logic there was that you could have a (full free market system with vouchers) and I think you need some balance. ...
I think the debate has become much more sophisticated. A lot of that nuance gets lost … It's 'Gee, Doug, you suddenly flipped your position on school choice.' That's not true. The programs are more sophisticated, the thinking is so much more nuanced, I feel comfortable (supporting tax-credit scholarships).
What was your position on Amendments 7 and 9?
I had sort of mixed feelings. ... I would have voted for 7 … I do believe that religiously affiliated organizations should have the right (to provide services). It seemed to me that (Amendment 7) protected the establishment cause … while eliminating discriminating against folks simply because of their religious affiliation. ... (Amendment 9) was more complex because it dealt with two issues … I think that putting that (the 65 percent provision) into the Constitution seemed to be unnecessary and redundant. I'm really a conservative when it comes to the Constitution … you shouldn't address problems that don't really exist …
(But) I do believe passionately that uniformity is not about providing a one-size-fits-all system for every child. I think uniformity in my mind really means uniformity of opportunity. That's why I believe in a diversity of schooling options. ...
What gave me heartburn about Bush v. Holmes … is it suggests uniformity means we give everybody the same learning environment. I believe that's a real threat to innovation. Innovation is the key to expanding and strengthening public education.
So in the end the arguments in favor of addressing the uniformity language would have outweighed your reservations about 65 percent?
Probably. But I would have preferred the 65 percent thing to not be on there. ... When we first started the IB program, the criticisms that we received are virtually identical to the kinds of criticism you hear today (about virtual schools, charters and vouchers). I could easily make the argument that the IB program is unconstitutional (under Bush v. Holmes).
What are your biggest goals for the organization in the near future?
What I'd like to do is maximize the options and choices that are available to low-income and working-class families. I'm really interested in expanding the pool of opportunities out there and working with partners on making that happen. I'd really like to build a broad-based coalition and keep the momentum that happened during the last session (where Democrats and Republicans worked together on some education issues). We're going to reach out to everybody.
So expansion of CTC vouchers is high on the list?
Yes. It's really heartbreaking when you have parents asking to help their children (through school choice), and they can't do that. We want to make sure every parent … has opportunity, to make sure their children are successful. It's a moral imperative.
You have said that education reform should be based on scientific research. And yet in Florida we're growing tax-credit vouchers when we still don't know whether they are effective. Why not wait until the data is in?
The challenge in the world of human development is that getting precise measurements is very complex and difficult. That's part of the challenge in our business, that so much of our decisionmaking as it relates to a human development really transcends our ability to accurately measure. ... Any publicly funded institution ought to do its very best to adhere to best practices. But there is no such thing in education as a purely scientific, data-driven answer to every question. … I've been really skeptical of our ability to rank and grade schools according to those test scores.
(The IB program at St. Pete High) was a miserable failure for my son. The pedagogy is probably world class … but for my son, it was a failing school. So what does that say about how we make decisions? As a parent, I had to make the choice that was best for my child. ...
The data will inform us. But the data will never replace us (as far as whether kids are successful). What you're seeing is that 20,000, soon to be 25,000 families (using corporate tax credit vouchers), are deciding that these schools are meeting their needs. I trust those parents to raise those children in the same way I made decisions for my children.