When Florida voted in 2001 to create a corporate tax credit voucher program for low-income students, only one Democrat supported the idea.
Ten years later, when it came time to vote on a bill (HB 965) that expanded the amount of tax credit a company gets for making a donation to a school voucher program, 24 Democrats chose to support the bill.
That’s a remarkable policy shift for Democrats, who started out nearly united in their opposition to vouchers.
The votes also coincide with an increasing number of campaign donations and political advertising support of Democrats by individuals or groups that back voucher programs, including the corporate tax credit scholarship program.
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Democrats say their support of voucher programs is not connected to contributions but rather an awakening that that private school vouchers help many low-income students receive a good education.
“I support it because this money goes toward scholarships for children of African-Americans in low income areas,” said Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, who received donations from a voucher proponent. Black caucus members especially have embraced some voucher programs and say it reflects demands of their constituents – who are more likely to live in areas with poor-performing public schools.
Since 2004, about $5 million was spent by two “527” groups, which are political fundraising organizations that spend money advocating for an issue, according to campaign finance records.
These groups – All Children Matter and Florida Federation for Children – specifically support school voucher programs. These groups have ties with national pro-voucher organizations such as the American Federation for Children. Both of these political advocacy groups are run by John Kirtley, who successfully lobbied in 2001 to get the corporate tax credit scholarship program approved by the Legislature.
Kirtley sits on the board of Step Up For Students, one of the groups that provide private school vouchers to low-income students through the corporate tax credit scholarship program.
Through his own personal contributions, Kirtley, his wife, and to a much lesser extent his two daughters, have spent about $125,000 in the last two election cycles on Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Kirtley said expenditures by his political advocacy group are designed to “inform voters about the records of candidates.” He said candidates are picked “solely on their views on parental choice for low-income families.”
His personal contributions, he said, were made based on the same standards. “I’m a single issue person,” he said. “I don’t care about their position on anything but parental choice for low income families.”
Kirtley’s eagerness to help lawmakers that support vouchers appears to be a family affair.
His wife is a regular contributor to many of the same candidates that Kirtley chooses to donate to. And his two daughters – Peyton and Kendyl – each donated $500 in their name to former Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, and Taylor in 2009. Kirtley declined to provide his daughter’s ages and in an email interview asked that the focus stay on him, so it’s not clear if the daughters’ donations violate a state law that limits contributions by children to $100.
State law limits donations by adults to $500 for each candidate per election. But 527 groups are allowed to spend freely on political advertisements, such as direct mail or television advertising. The only limit on these communications is they cannot explicitly urge the election or defeat of a candidate.
All of the Democrats and Republicans that received funding from Kirtley ended up backing the bill that allowed companies claiming a corporate tax credit for donating to voucher groups to get a larger tax credit.
Last year an even bigger expansion of the corporate tax credit voucher program was approved with about half of the Democratic caucus supporting it and many of the same Democrats voted similarly this year.
Some Democrats that support voucher bills, though, did not receive direct donations from Kirtley, such as Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale and Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove.
House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said he voted for the voucher bill because it saves the state money on education. That’s because students who receive vouchers through the corporate tax credit program only get a percentage of the per-student funding they would receive if they went to a public school.
Saunders also received donations from Kirtley and his wife.
“I generally have supported the tax scholarship program because it relieves pressure (on education spending),” Saunders said. When asked about campaign support, Saunders said “I think I got those contributions after I voted the first time on it. They support the people that support the program.”
Saunders said Democrats have never taken a caucus position on vouchers. “It’s an issue people don’t agree on.”
Indeed, other Democrats and black caucus members contacted for this story say they are against expansions of vouchers. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said she voted against the voucher bill because she believes it harms public schools. “My biggest concern is that there is no data that shows once a student gets a voucher and leaves the public school, it is not proven they perform better in the private school,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she believes voucher supporters have become politically influential. “They are attempting, in terms of their political power, to link their contributions with the votes that members take,” Thompson said.
But other Democrats and Kirtley say there is no “quid pro quo” of votes for political support.
“The idea that Democratic support for parent choice has been bought is absurd,” Kirtley said. He said the reason more Democrats have become supporters of voucher programs is broadening support on the issue from constituents. He pointed out that several Democrats voted for voucher programs without any assistance from him or his fundraising arm.
“It is actually the natural order of things that a majority of the black caucus would support the tax credit program and parental choice for low income families,” Kirtley said. “It would be unnatural if they didn’t.”
Kirtley said the need to become more involved in political donations was driven by a desire to compete against the big dogs in education politics: the teachers union, also known as the Florida Education Association.
“For too long, there was only one main player in education reform political space….teacher’s unions,” Kirtley said. He said nationally teachers unions spent $70 million on political races last year. That figure could not be confirmed.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said comparing political expenditures between the two groups is comparing apples to oranges. The FEA examines a wide range of issues when it considers which candidates to support, Pudlow said, such as the budget, class size, merit pay and voucher programs.
“(Kirtley) is dealing with a single issue,” Pudlow said. “Comparing what we spend to him isn’t exactly fair.”
With Republicans holding large majorities in the House and Senate, and a governor supportive of expanding school options beyond traditional public schools, Kirtley certainly doesn’t need Democratic votes to press his agenda. But he said he donates to Democrats because the issue is non-partisan.
“These legislators are voting to give low income parents more educational opportunity and they deserve support for doing so,” Kirtley said. “The pendulum always swings back.”
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida