Facing a harsh truth when fighting for a bipartisan cause

Two different reporters contacted me this week, asking why I contribute so much to candidates who support education options for low-income children. Please allow me to share part of my answer to them, because it speaks to one of the real-world limitations we face as we expand public education choices for low-income students. The harsh truth is that teacher unions react with vengeance against any Democrat (and if they can, Republican) who votes for any option that involves teachers who can’t easily be organized for collective bargaining. So if we expect legislators to be able to resist these threats and bring an open mind to this new definition of public education, they need help.

In 1998, I started a privately funded K-12 scholarship program for low-income families in Tampa, and with no advertising we received 12,500 applications for 750 slots. That was when I first realized how much low-income families want parental choice in education. When the Florida Legislature passed the Tax Credit Scholarship in the 2001 session, we tried hard to get Democrats to vote for it. We could get only one. I was baffled by this, because the program would benefit only poor families, who largely vote Democrat.

One of these Democrats took me behind closed doors. He said he knew it would be the right thing to vote for the program, but he couldn’t because the teachers’ union was the largest donor to his campaigns and they would find and fund an opponent to take his seat.

In 2004, the national parental choice movement realized that if we were going to help more low-income parents have choice, we had to begin investing in the political process. For too long, the teacher unions have been the only player in the education reform political space and last year alone they spent more than $70 million nationally. Low-income families don’t have this type of well-funded apparatus to make sure they have their voices heard in the political process. The result today is the American Federation For Children Action Fund, a “527” organization I am affilated with. AFC believes that parental choice for low-income families is a fundamentally nonpartisan issue, and that it is one of the most important social justice issues of our time. We try to help these families have a voice.

The reporters asked me specifically whether the support of parental choice by black Democrats was the result of my contributions and AFC’s communications. That’s not only an insult to black elected officials who have shown remarkable courage, but it also ignores the obvious: African-American and Hispanic Democrats are receptive to parental choice because their constituents strongly desire it. Roughly three-fourths of the students on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship are children of color. Why wouldn’t these legislators support giving more power to their constituents to choose the best school for their kids? The reason they didn’t before is simple — there was no counter to the poltical spending of the union.

The reporters also seemed incredulous that I would contribute to Democrats when Republicans dominate the Florida Legislature. I told them that, first, it’s the right thing to do. These legislators are voting to give low-income parents more educational opportunity, and they deserve support for doing so. Parental choice for low-income families should be a bipartisan cause. By countering the union’s money with some of our own, we are helping to make that a reality.

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BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization

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