John Kirtley on universal vouchers, tax credit scholarships and more

John Kirtley is the chairman of Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog

Jeffrey Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times recently interviewed Step Up For Students Board Chair John Kirtley for a Times story on Florida’s education choice programs. Jeff’s questions and John’s answers are below. This interview has been edited for length.

Why did you first create the tax credit scholarships? Were you trying to come up with an alternative to vouchers? Were vouchers always the end goal?

… It is often erroneously said that “the tax credit scholarship program was created after the Florida Supreme Court ruled Jeb Bush’s voucher plan unconstitutional.” That is false. The litigation had only just begun when the Legislature created the tax credit scholarship. Most of us — including some very smart lawyers — thought that the governor’s voucher program would prevail in court.  … I would urge you to read this story about that ruling …:

But I digress. The Bush v. Holmes opinion came out five years after the tax credit program was created. The opinion wasn’t the motivation for its creation.

The end goal is to empower low-income and working class parents to be able to choose the best educational environment for their children, regardless of who runs it. I am agnostic when it comes to what kind of school parents choose. I don’t believe private schools are better than district or charter schools. I believe that the parent needs to have the ability to find the right environment for their children. My “end goal” would be that economic station would not prevent any parent in Florida from doing just that.

Did Florida need to go through 20 years of becoming accustomed to these programs to get to this point today, where the governor now says, if it’s taxpayer-funded education, it’s public education no matter where you sit?

Maybe so. Twenty years ago the definition of “public education” was pretty simple. We raised taxpayer dollars to educate kids, and we gave every penny to the districts. The districts ran every school in a fairly “uniform” manner, and assigned kids by their ZIP code. Today the definition of public education is very different. We now have children attending district magnets, career academies, charters, virtual classes, dual enrollment college classes, and yes even private and faith-based school using taxpayer funds. Many students are now combining different providers and delivery methods at the same time. For example, a senior in high school might take two classes at their zoned district school, two classes through the Florida Virtual School, and two classes at the local state college—all paid for by the taxpayers.  People are surprised to learn that of the 2.8 million students in Florida educated by the taxpayers, over 30 percent now do not attend their zoned district school. In Miami Dade, it’s [nearly] 70 percent! So I agree completely with Gov. DeSantis on this question.

Are education savings accounts and portable per-student funding the next logical step in the movement? Or is it something else?

I believe ESAs are the next logical step. They give a parent the ability to customize a child’s education to a greater degree. We have seen this be very helpful in the Gardiner program. Money can be used for tuition, but also tutoring and specialized therapies. ESAs would be of great help to low-income families. Think about all the things that better off kids do outside of the classroom that help with their development. Music lessons, dance, sports, etc. Some of these activities are crucial in helping children develop into successful adults. ESAs could help low-income parents give their children the same advantages in this regard as better off families. ESAs would also promote a more efficient spending of educational dollars. Think of the example I gave of the student using three providers and two delivery methods. With an ESA, they could purchase those classes from each provider, and we could ensure that the taxpayer doesn’t overpay for any one of them. The key to ESAs is having excellent state oversight, particularly in the area of deciding what are proper expenses. Fortunately, Step Up For Students has raised $4 million in private funds over the past few years to develop an online platform that makes the administration of ESA possible with great accountability. It prevents funds from being spent on purposes that the state doesn’t allow.

How important were Jeb Bush and the Bush v. Holmes case to the state’s progression on school choice?

Jeb Bush has done more for educational choice — and K-12 reform overall — than any single person. First, people forget he started the state’s first charter school in Liberty City with Urban League President T. Willard Fair. Then in 1998 he ran for governor on a platform of K-12 reform and was the first governor candidate in the nation to propose giving poor families the ability to choose a private school. Opponents went nuts during the campaign, and did so again when he fulfilled his promise with the A+ Plan. Florida has made more progress in public education in the last 20 years than any other state. It’s indisputable, even though people deny it or try to ignore it. And it all started with Jeb Bush.

Should the state place accountability requirements on any school that receives state funding for education, as it requires on district schools and charters? Why or why not?

There are two kinds of accountability — regulatory accountability and market accountability. Regulatory accountability is using laws to force schools to act in a certain way. Market accountability is parents choosing to send their children to a school. For all kinds of schools, whether they be district, charter or scholarship schools, the key is finding a balance between these two forms of accountability.

District schools face large degrees of regulatory accountability. Generally, district schools in low-income areas face little market accountability, because parents can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with a different zoned school, and they can’t afford private school. I contrast that with district schools in better off areas, because parents can afford to move or pay for an alternative.

I personally believe that district schools are overregulated, and should be allowed much more flexibility to innovate and operate. I think we have wrung all the improvement we can out of district schools from regulatory accountability.

Charter schools and private schools serving scholarship children face the ultimate in market accountability, because if parents don’t choose them they don’t get funded. Because they face this aspect, which forces them to perform or go out of business, the regulatory accountability needed is less. But there is absolutely a need for regulatory accountability for them. With the scholarship schools, they must prove that they are in compliance with all health and safety laws. They must have employees undergo the same background checks as district schools. If they take $250,000 worth of scholarship students, they have to have an independent CPA come in and examine their books, and submit that report. They have to administer either the state assessment or a nationally recognized test approved by the state, and report those scores to Florida State every year. Scores are publicly reported by FSU down to the school level.

Critics of choice programs point to incidents of bad behavior and demand that the programs be shut down. But you can’t legislate away human frailty. Every day we read about bad behavior by employees in district schools, but we don’t advocate shutting down a school when it happens there. Now, if a private school hasn’t complied with the law, I say expel them. For example, if they haven’t done background checks on employees, that’s inexcusable. We need to ensure that the Florida DOE has enough resources and capacity to enforce the accountability laws that are already on the books

I often wish that critics of choice would apply their concerns across the entire K-12 landscape. For example, some critics are upset that the law doesn’t require private schools serving scholarship students to employ teachers with college degrees. But they don’t want to hear that there’s many teachers in public schools without college degrees, especially in district schools serving low-income children. For schools in Orange County serving more than 80 percent low-income students, 39 percent of teachers missed between 11 and 17 days of school, and 14 percent missed more than 18 days of school. Substitutes in Orange County can be hired with only a high school or GED degree. In Duval County high-poverty schools, 41 percent of teachers missed between 11 and 17 days of school, and 29 percent missed more than 18 days. Here’s the source for that:

Your own paper did an excellent piece on the challenges with substitutes. Now understand, I’m not saying that the districts are to blame — they’re doing the best they can. I’m just saying that if we are concerned about teachers without college degrees, let’s find out how bad the problem is an all types of schools and find a solution.

Every year Step Up makes suggested to the Legislature to improve the accountability of the choice programs. We will continue to do so every year.


  1. He is playing semantics with the word “teacher”. There is not a single teacher employed in Orange County without a college degree. OCPS may not require a substitute to have college degree but that doesn’t mean they’re employed by the county as a teacher. They are employed by Kelly Services to serve as a sub until a teacher returns. Shame on you for not calling Mr. Kirtley out on that.

    • David Hudson Tuthill

      Hey Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. I think you are missing the point Mr. Kirtley is making here though. There’s no doubt that every teacher hired permanently has a college degree. His point is that students attending district schools that primarily serve low-income kids are taught by (substitute) teachers without college degrees a substantial amount of time. Yes, they are hired by Kelly Services and not the district itself – but that doesn’t change the fact they are spending a lot of time teaching kids in the district schools.

      • It depends on what your definition of “substantial” is, but I digress. It speaks to the issue of finding and retaining good teachers. That begs the question, just who do you think will be lining up to teach all of the students in private and parochial schools if a voucher expansion occurs? Oh wait. Perhaps uncertified teachers who really shouldn’t be standing in front of young people maybe?