A weekend interview with John Kirtley, founder of Florida's corporate tax credit scholarships
Florida lawmakers again this year broadened the state's corporate tax credit scholarship program, which provides vouchers that allow low-income students to attend private schools. This time, the law changed to allow insurance companies to participate in the program and to make it easier for families to apply for the program. Along the way, the number of Democrats backing the idea continued to grow. Tampa businessman John Kirtley, who created the program and runs the group that implements it, spoke via e-mail with reporter Jeff Solochek about the successes the program has found.
Why do you think Florida needs to keep broadening participation in the corporate tax credit scholarship program?
In the past, we had insurance companies that wanted to participate but couldn't, because they pay insurance premium taxes instead of corporate income taxes. So that's why we wanted to expand the eligibility to that particular tax.
Regarding broadening children's participation in the program, our desire is very simple. We want economically disadvantaged children to have every possible education tool available to them and for the parents to be able to choose the school that works best, regardless of who runs it. We won't rest until every low-income family has that right. Most low-income parents are very satisfied with their assigned public school, because most public schools do a great job against great odds. But there are always going to be some children who need a different learning environment in order to thrive.
When you helped create the program, did you envision it working as it does now? Why or why not?
I really had no preconceived notions as to how it would work. I just had a desire to help low-income families have more educational options. Now, after being in the parental choice movement for over 10 years, I have a much better understanding of the role the program can play. This program is not a silver bullet to solve our challenges in K-12 public education. It is a crucial element of K-12 reform, but only one element. Many public school districts have done a great job creating more options for low-income children. I am very encouraged when I see what's being done in places like Dade, Hillsborough and Okaloosa. There you see excellent charters, magnets and career academies – and innovative partnerships with private entities like Embry Riddle University. However, some low-income children only thrive in school environments that can be accessed with the Tax Credit Scholarship. To ensure genuine equal opportunity, these schools must be a part of the mix.
What is the meaning of the increasing support of groups that initially opposed the idea?
As you have reported, the program was passed in 2001 with the support of only one Democrat in the Legislature. This year, 43 percent of all Democrats voted for the bill. As significant, a majority of the Legislative Black Caucus and 100 percent of the Hispanic Caucus voted yes. This is simply the natural order of things. All of the families who have or want the program are low income. Forty percent are African-American, and 25 percent Hispanic. The average income is $25,000 for a family of four. We've never done it, but I'm sure if we polled them, they would be overwhelmingly Democrat voters. So it was politically untenable in the long term for Democrats representing these families to oppose something their constituents desperately wanted. It just took time to connect these parents with their elected Representatives and Senators. Once these legislators heard from these parents and understood how much the program was helping their children, the support grew quickly.
Would it help to add an accountability piece to the scholarship program, so people can tell if the children who choose to attend a private school are performing any better on the state standards?
By state law, children on the program are required each year to take either the FCAT or a nationally recognized standardized test approved by the DOE. Last year, two-thirds of them took the Stanford 10. Those scores must be reported to the University of Florida, which is under DOE contract to analyze the learning gains of the children in the program. We should have the first report on the gains out shortly. This will enable legislators and the taxpayers to see if we are getting our money's worth on the program overall.
Our organization is very interested in parents having enough information to make not just choices, but the right choices for their children. We are interested in exploring ways to help them do that with private schools. The parental choice movement is wrestling with the details of how to do that right now.
Where do you see the program headed next? What are the benefits of these next steps? And what are the pitfalls?
We want every low-income parent in Florida to have the ability to choose the best school for his or her children, just like other parents with greater means already do. We don't care where they choose to send them – if they all chose their local public school because that was the best place, we would be thrilled. We just want all of them to have the power to choose, which is why we're working to make sure scholarships are available to all low-income families that need them.
The benefit of more empowered parents is obvious: you will have better outcomes for children. Every child is different. The key to each one succeeding is finding the right learning environment. K-12 public education is changing rapidly, and we can't stop that change. It is becoming more and more customized. You already have children taking some classes at their assigned public school, some through the Florida Virtual School, and some dual enrolled at a community college. You have them trying out magnet programs or career academies or charter schools. That's the future, and we don't want low-income parents left behind. We're committed to helping public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity.
There are no pitfalls to more customization and parental empowerment. And what we are finding is that the more people understand our goals and see how they work for low-income families, the easier our political struggle becomes.
How do you avoid the type of program abuse that we saw documented in some of Florida's voucher programs a few years ago?
The accountability bill championed by Senator King and passed in 2006 eliminated the possibilities for most of the abuses that took place. The fiscal accountability requirements of scholarship organizations is incredibly demanding and well-designed. I think that's why you only see three active non-profits running the program. We are exploring how to do more regarding the fiscal accountability of schools serving children in the program.
What kind of advice are you giving nationally to organizations and policy makers who are looking at similar programs in other places, such as Washington D.C. schools?
Our advice is that you must make the support for choice programs bipartisan. It's hard work because of the political dynamics, but Florida shows that it can be done. The idea actually had its first political champions in the Democratic party. Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern both embraced tuition tax credit programs when they ran for president. Today we are seeing great progress in bipartisan support across the country. There are efforts to create a tax credit scholarship in New Jersey, Maryland and New Mexico that are all led by Democrats. It's becoming harder and harder for legislators to deny low-income parents this basic right.
Do you think President Obama's focus on education reform will help or hinder the effort?
It will help, and I know he already has been a tremendous source of inspiration to many of the children on our program. I had great hope, because regarding education he says “we have to use what works, regardless of ideology.” Unfortunately, he did not lift a finger when Congress voted to eliminate the DC scholarship program. That program is helping 1,700 poor kids, 95% of whom are African-American. A federal study just showed that the kids in that program are already ahead of their peers in reading. It's clearly working, and the President should call upon Congress to save it. The President and the First Lady chose to put their children in a private school. There are children at that school attending on the scholarship program who will be kicked out. I could not imagine a starker moral lesson for the country.
The President could be like Nixon going to China. He should simply say, "I want poor DC parents to have the same empowerment I have. Congress, fix this.” And it would be done. Hopefully he will. Even if he doesn't, I think it's a teachable moment for the country.