Florida school choice supporters spar as voucher organization is targeted

Florida Citizens Alliance says Step Up for Students has become a monopoly over vouchers. Plus, it’s too “woke.”
Doug Tuthill, president of the nonprofit Step Up for Students, calls the Florida Citizens Alliance criticism of the scholarship funding organization "absurd."
Doug Tuthill, president of the nonprofit Step Up for Students, calls the Florida Citizens Alliance criticism of the scholarship funding organization "absurd." [ Times (2015) ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 10

The debate over how to expand Florida’s school voucher program has launched a rift between two influential groups tied to conservative politics.

The Florida Citizens Alliance, a Southwest Florida group better known for efforts to have books pulled from schools, has called on lawmakers to pin back the power of Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based organization that helped create the state’s scholarship and voucher programs and manages about 99% of them.

In a Thursday morning alert, the alliance asked its members to urge lawmakers to curtail what it called Step Up’s “monopoly.” With House Bill 1, which aims to provide vouchers and education savings accounts to all Florida schoolchildren, the Legislature should expand the number of scholarship funding organizations and not allow Step Up to grow any larger, the group said.

Part of the reason, director Keith Flaugh said, is because Step Up has become a moribund bureaucracy that makes families wait too long to secure scholarships. The other part, he said, has to do with Step Up being too “woke.”

He pointed to the organization’s 2020 partnership with Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group, to provide “awareness training” for private schools that accept the state scholarships. The goal is to help the schools create a culture of inclusion.

The arrangement came on the heels of reports that some private schools had written rules to deny admission to LGBTQ students.

Related: Training on LGBTQ awareness is coming to private schools taking state money

“The governor says Florida is where woke goes to die,” said Flaugh, who served on the governor’s 2018 education transition committee. “Yet you have the primary administrator of all of our scholarships who is quote-unquote in bed with Equality Florida.”

Step Up president Doug Tuthill dismissed the Florida Citizens Alliance effort. His organization has been working with the state to prepare for the eventuality of education savings accounts, and his boss, Tampa financier John Kirtley, also has had ties with several governors, including DeSantis.

“This political attack is absurd,” Tuthill said via email. “Step Up is a nonprofit organization committed to helping families find and access the best learning options for each child. We are not a monopoly but we do provide great customer service which is why we received over 400,000 scholarship applications from families this year.”

Scott Kent, a spokesperson for Step Up, later sent a statement that Florida Citizens Alliance “has it wrong” about the partnership with Equality Florida. Step Up did not accept a $1 million grant from Equality Florida, he wrote, but rather raised private donations to support the awareness campaign.

Step Up “was not attempting to require all private schools to train their teachers,” he added. “It was entirely voluntary for schools.”

The dust-up arose as DeSantis works to establish his bona fides as a conservative anti-”woke” leader in advance of a widely anticipated run for president. Former President Donald Trump took a swipe at DeSantis this week, posting social media that suggested DeSantis was a “groomer” while teaching in Georgia. It was another example of erstwhile allies turning against one another to boost their credentials to the Republican base.

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Related: Trump escalates DeSantis rift with social media posts

The infighting quickly caught the attention of political observers in Florida and across the nation.

Jennifer Berkshire, a journalism instructor at Boston College, focuses on education politics in her writings. She said it seemed a matter of time before a rupture occurred in Florida’s school choice world, with one part focused on culture issues and another that sees choice as a civil rights concern.

She predicted a “very ugly battle in Florida” over school choice issues.

“This is going to be a real reminder that even though these groups get lumped together … the Moms for Liberty crowd is not the same as Step Up for Students,” Berkshire said. “That alliance is going to be tested.”

One big question, she said, is where DeSantis will land in the dispute.

Flaugh said he knew going up against Kirtley could be difficult. He said he’s been talking with legislative leaders about his vision for HB 1, suggesting his goal is to open the free market for choice.

A spokesperson for the House Republicans said no ideas are off the table.

“As you know, bills are debated and amended as the legislative process unfolds,” spokesperson Andres Malave said via email. Bill sponsor Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, “has made it clear her door is open to hear from other legislators and anyone else interested in expanding school choice and improving educational outcomes,” he added.

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