As the Florida coordinator of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), I am frequently asked by Democrats in other states why so many elected Florida Democrats support all forms of school choice, including vouchers and tax credit scholarships, but not tenure and teacher pay reforms. The answer is black middle-class jobs and the rise of black-owned schools.
During the days of Jim Crow, school districts were the biggest employers of college educated African-Americans and even though other professions have opened up, school districts today remain a leading employer of college-educated African-Americans. Consequently, education reforms that are perceived as negatively impacting school districts are usually opposed by the black community. This is one reason former chancellor Michelle Rhee’s effort to reduce job protections for Washington, D.C. educators was so fiercely opposed by many district African-Americans, even though they knew black children were benefitting. Saying that school districts should put the needs of students above the concerns of adults ignores that adults feed, clothe and house students and meeting those needs is difficult without a job.
Every Florida black elected legislator opposed the early school choice programs, but the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students and the McKay Scholarship for exceptional students have caused a change in attitude. These programs have enabled black churches and community groups to create financially viable schools, and as these schools have grown so has black political support for school choice. Black ministers are employing black teachers and administrators to work in their growing schools and are seeing the lives of black children turned around. These ministers, in turn, are pressuring black elected officials to support these scholarship programs, and they are responding.
Last spring, a majority of the Black Caucus supported legislation significantly strengthening the Tax Credit Scholarship program, while unanimously opposing legislation that reformed tenure and teacher pay in school districts. A respected minister from Fort Lauderdale, Rev. C.E. Glover of Mount Bethel Baptist Church and Christian Academy, even joined a coalition to challenge both gubernatorial candidates this fall to support the scholarship. “I have led this ministry for a quarter-century now, and I can tell you that nothing is more satisfying or more important than our mission to provide for the academic needs of children in our community,” Glover told reporters. “For those of us who have fought the historic battle against the indignities of racial discrimination in our nation, we understand the importance of providing educational opportunity to new generations.”
The lesson for DFER out of Florida is that school choice programs that enable local black and Hispanic communities to own and manage financially healthy schools are essential to expanding support for education reform within the Democratic Party. Black and Hispanic legislators will support school choice programs, including vouchers, if these programs allow their constituents to own schools and expand middle-class employment. Protests from school boards and teacher unions that minority-owned private schools drain market share from school districts do not resonate with black and Hispanic elected officials when they see minority-owned schools creating jobs and succeeding with children who were previously failing.