SUFS president delivers remarks before Senate Education Committee

Editor’s note: In a moving 20-minute presentation Tuesday at the Florida Senate Education Committee’s first meeting in advance of the 2021 legislative session, lifelong education choice advocate Doug Tuthill set the stage for continued expansion of school choice as a means of leveling persistent gaps and improving education outcomes for all students. Here are excerpts from that presentation.

“Helping public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity – this is what gets us up every morning. This is what we think about before we go to bed every night … We know we have huge inequities in our system. We know that not every child has the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and so part of the process here is to make sure we create a public education system that’s flexible enough to make sure every child gets his or her needs met … And you want the parents to be engaged in that process.”

“We have to have a partnership with parents, work with them and collaborate with them to make sure they have the resources and the information they need to make the very best choices for their children. I know a lot of people don’t trust parents to make good decisions, but I think that’s wrong. I think parents are the best educators for their kids. They have to be partners in this process. What I’ve learned over 42 years of doing education reform is that you’ve got to engage the parents in a much deeper way than we have historically. That’s what these programs are designed to do.”

“The other thing I’ve learned over the past 42 years is the power of ownership … I think the sense of ownership is really important. People who own things have a greater commitment to them, they work harder to make those things a success. Too much of our system is designed to treat people as renters and not owners. Part of what the choice movement does is it tries to give that sense of empowerment. It tries to give people that sense of ownership.”

“What we’re seeing in these programs over the past 20, 30 years is that ownership is transformational. When people have a sense of ownership it really transforms them. It motivates them. They engage in ways they don’t if they don’t feel that sense of ownership. And that’s really I think the magic sauce.”

“Choice is now the norm in Florida. It’s not going away. You’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle. The question is equal opportunity. How do we make sure that some kids don’t get left behind? That’s what these programs are about, to make sure we don’t leave any children behind.”

“Oftentimes, we hear people say, ‘You’re giving money to private schools.’ That’s a false statement. None of the programs give money to private schools. What the programs do is give money to families, and families make a choice as to how they want to spend that money … This is a parent empowerment program. It’s not a private school subsidy program. No money goes to private schools. That’s the law. The money goes to the families, and the families make a decision how they want to spend that money.”

“You are going to hear a lot about ESAs over the next several years. Education savings accounts give families more flexibility on how to spend their money. One of the things we learned from the pandemic is in order to keep their children safe and well-educated, families want as much flexibility as possible. You’ve read about families creating homeschool co-ops, learning pods. There is a lot of innovation going on out there by trying to make sure their children are safe. We want to make sure low-income children don’t get left behind. If you’re committed to equal opportunity, you want to make sure that all these families have these options.”

“It’s kind of like missionary work. You do this because it’s a chance to make a difference in people’s lives … Parents fight to get through the application process because they’re fighting for their kids. You have to honor that and respect it. Low-income families in particular who are trying to break the cycle of generational poverty know that education is the key. It’s an honor to work with those families.”

“I’ve had grandmothers come up to me and say, ‘I dropped out of school in eighth or ninth grade because of financial situations, home situation. I had to work to take care of my family. My grandchild is now on a scholarship, my grandchild is doing amazingly well. I’m so moved by the transformation of my grandchild I’ve gone back to work on my GED.’ Those stories are just powerful. It’s really about hope, it’s really about empowerment, it’s really about ownership. Those things are the magic sauce in changing people’s lives.”

“We serve the highest poverty, lowest performing kids in the state, which makes sense. If you’re going to go through this process, it’s because you’re desperate. That’s what we see, families who are desperately advocating for their children.”

“What the programs do is they give people hope, meaningful hope, that leads to transformation in people’s behavior.”

“It’s impossible to be serious about equal opportunity if you only think about school as six hours a day, 180 days a year … We’ve got to figure out how to deal with all the learning that happens outside of school, and what an education savings account does is it allows families to spend money not just on the school day but on after-school activities and summer activities to begin leveling that playing field. It’s really important as we move forward that we talk about how we can provide families with the resources they need, not just during the school day, but after school and during the summer to begin to level the playing field, to be really serious about equal opportunity.”

To view the Senate Education Committee meeting in its entirety, click here.