One lawmaker’s change of heart, and his message in Virginia

Before a Virginia senate committee had a chance to kill a proposed tax credit scholarship for low-income students, legislators heard from a former Florida lawmaker who had his own change of heart about supporting private learning options for families who could least afford them.

Terry L. Fields, a former Democratic state representative from Jacksonville, Fla., traveled to Virginia this week to share with lawmakers skeptical of HB 2314 how a group of families once showed him that supporting a scholarship for low-income children helped fulfill the state’s commitment to equal educational opportunity.

“It’s very personal with me,” Fields said in an interview with redefinED this morning. “When my son was in grade school, I realized as a parent that he didn’t do very well in that setting. So we made a decision to put him in a private school.” A few years later, a group of about 30 parents and 30 students came to his House office  and confronted Fields’ opposition to Florida’s own tax credit scholarship and asked for the chance to give their children what he had given his own son.

“I support the public school system 100 percent,” Fields said. “But I now understand that one size does not fit all.”

So, despite a well-crafted proposal modeled similarly to Florida’s, Fields said isn’t surprised that the Virginia Senate Finance Committee voted 9-6 to let the bill die. “People have gotten this confused with a voucher program,” Fields said. “They don’t understand people are wanting to help their children. We had the same problem in Florida.”

In 2001, the Legislature approved the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship along party lines; only one Democrat voted in support. Today, the scholarship has the support of nearly half the Democrats and about two-thirds of the Black Caucus. As years passed, more Democrats came to see the option as a cause for social justice, and Fields joined the Virginia bill’s sponsors to help their senate colleagues understand that.

While they were unsuccessful now, Fields sees the potential for political evolution, but it may take a grassroots movement to convince Virginia Democrats  that the traditional lines dividing the parties on this issues are irrelevant today.

“Everybody wants to do the right thing,” he said. “But I think they’re a little afraid of what the right thing is.”

On a related note, Fields’ former colleague in the Florida Legislature, Sen. Al Lawson, had this to say about HB 2314 in Tuesday’s Roanoke Times:

Listen, these scholarships are no panacea. But the reality is that different children learn in different ways, which is why public education today offers all types of options, including magnet programs, career academies, International Baccalaureate, online courses and charter schools. This just happens to be one that is focused solely on economically disadvantaged children — the very students who suffer the greatest odds in modern education, barely half of whom, in Florida, read at grade level.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit