Miami Herald reporter Kathleen McGrory has the latest on expansion of Florida’s voucher program:
TALLAHASSEE — Nearly 200 schoolchildren greeted Senate President Don Gaetz last month when he visited a Catholic school in Pensacola to get a first-hand look at the impact of Florida’s controversial school voucher program.
Gaetz said he left St. John the Evangelist Catholic School convinced that the Florida Legislature should expand the program, which provides private-school scholarships to low-income children.
But the fate of the proposed expansion is not riding on the power of persuasion from students, parents and teachers alone.
More powerful political forces are at work in Tallahassee.
Those forces include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and influential think tanks like the conservative James Madison Institute and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. All have thrown their considerable weight behind the expansion.
And then there is the money. The voucher program’s top supporter, Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley, controls a political committee in Florida that spent nearly $2.4 million to influence races in 2010 and 2012. He plans to spend at least $1.5 million in 2014, he said.
Ah, yes…John Kirtley.
It would be dishonest to say that the system hasn’t benefited some Florida children, but the money that people like Kirtley shove into the political process clouds transparency for Florida taxpayers.
Kirtley, who helped craft the original voucher legislation in 2001 and is chairman of the non-profit organization that runs Florida’s voucher program, personally spent $112,500 in campaign contributions in the current election cycle, according to the state Division of Elections.
Of that total, $50,000 and $25,000 went to the soft-money committees controlled by Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, respectively. Smaller donations went to both Democratic and Republican candidates.
In addition, Kirtley’s political committee, the Florida Federation for Children, has channeled more than $2.3 million into political advertisements and direct mail to help favored candidates since 2010.
The Florida Federation for Children has been “heavily involved in Democratic primaries, where there are legislators who have supported their constituents’ desires for parental choice in education,” Kirtley said.
“We also have been involved in Republican primaries, but fewer, since there is usually a consensus among those candidates about educational choice,” he said. “If there is a contrast either way in a general election, we will be involved there as well.”
So what bang is Kirtley getting for his big bucks this time? Aside from the expansion of caps and the elevation in the definition of the poverty ceiling, Kirtley’s pro-school privatization organization, Step Up for Students would get to directly access sales tax from businesses, completely cutting out state oversight. This February story FlaglerLive explains:
One of the most sweeping changes to the program would be the authority for sales taxes to be sent to scholarship organizations instead of the state, which would provide tax credits to retailers that do so. Until now, the program has been largely funded by credits against taxes paid by corporations, including corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes.
As Scathing Purple Musings reported in February, seven Step Up for Students (SUFS)execs make over $100,000 on the voucher dime. Moreover, the program also finances the publication of a pro-privatization web site, redefinED which constantly churns out blog posts supporting voucher expansion, private schools and the for-profit charter school industry. Kirtley is the founder and current chairman of SUFS.
While one of SUFS exec, Jon East, is obviously supporting this year’s voucher expansion, he is attempting to persuade taxpayers that school recipients of the vouchers SUFS administrates shouldn’t be held to the same accountability standards as are the state’s public schools. This apparently is thankfully a line in the sand for senate president Don Gaetz. Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) has other reservations.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who also serves as chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, appeared hesitant Thursday about the possibility of allowing the program to access sales taxes.
“The net result is a reduction into the general fund, which means there would be a reduction in what is spent on education and health care and across the board,” he said.
The provisions which raise the cap and poverty ceilings would likely pass without Kirtley’s cash leverage. East probably even knows that his defense of different accountability standards for voucher schools is a non-starter as well. Kirtley and his acolytes at SUFS desperately wants direct access to sales tax without an oversight filter from Tallahassee getting in the way. Moreover, they want this model legislation on the books to serve as a template for SUFS franchises in other states, like Alabama, where Kirtley has been throwing his money around, too.