This week, Republican House Speaker Paul Renner introduced a major expansion of Florida’s school choice voucher program. Democrats, predictably, lined up on the opposite side. It’s the wrong move. We lay out the right one.
A brief history lesson
Four long years ago, before the global coronavirus pandemic upended everything, before Ron DeSantis had become a political juggernaut, he found himself in a political fight that could have dramatically altered the course of history. Looking back to the 2018 governor’s race against Democrat Andrew Gillum, DeSantis managed to win by just 32,463 votes, out of about 8.2 million total votes cast.
Those 32,000 votes are the difference between DeSantis fading into history, a Democratic Party ascension in Florida, and perhaps, Gillum himself finding a way to avoid the personal and criminal wipeouts that later ensued.
The deciding factor – that great hinge of history that swung fortune away from Democrats and helped propel Florida Republicans like rocket fuel – was school choice. The case is rather easy to make, too. The math is straightforward. A 2018 story in the Wall Street Journal tells it best, making the case that DeSantis significantly outperformed against Gillum among black women, of whom more than twice the usual number cast their vote for DeSantis, which translated to over 100,000 votes, or three times the actual margin of victory. From the WSJ story:
Of the roughly 650,000 black women who voted in Florida, 18% chose Mr. DeSantis, according to CNN’s exit poll of 3,108 voters. This exceeded their support for GOP U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott (9%), Mr. DeSantis’s performance among black men (8%) and the GOP’s national average among black women (7%).
To be sure, 18% of the black female vote in Florida is equal to less than 2% of the total electorate. But in an election decided by fewer than 40,000 votes, these 100,000 black women proved decisive. Their apparent ticket splitting helps to explain why the Florida governor’s race wasn’t as close as the Florida Senate race, though Mr. Gillum was widely expected to carry Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson to victory on his coattails.
And as for why so many traditional Democrat voters broke for DeSantis?
More than 100,000 low-income students in Florida participate in the Step Up For Students program, which grants tax-credit funded scholarships to attend private schools. Even more students are currently enrolled in the state’s 650 charter schools.
Most Step Up students are minorities whose mothers are registered Democrats. Yet many of these “school-choice moms” vote for gubernatorial candidates committed to protecting their ability to choose where their child goes to school.
Fast forward to this week in Tallahassee, where Republican House Speaker Paul Renner announced an aggressive expansion of school choice vouchers, which include plans for education savings accounts and provides funds to pay for special needs scholarships that would eliminate the state’s waiting list.
Why Democrats Lose
The Democrat reaction to the proposal was immediate and vitriolic.
“This is a continuation of Republican attacks on our public education system that helped create the American Dream by providing education to the poor and rich alike,” said House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell in a press release.
Underpinning the Democratic line of attack against school choice is the rather flimsy argument that public schools must remain an unassailable institution, rather than the product of a bygone era of American history. That failed logic has caused Democrats to hemorrhage support for the simple reason that Americans happen to like having options.
Even opponents of school choice, like Tallahassee’s former League of Women Voters’ President Sally Butzin, admitted that she likes choice in her argument against school choice:
“I love choice. Who doesn’t? I like to choose my restaurant, knowing that whatever I choose has been inspected and certified safe. I like to choose my gas station, knowing the pumps have been inspected and certified for accurate weights and measurements. I like to choose my airline, knowing the pilots are trained with the expertise to keep me safe.
Comically, like Florida Democrats, choice is fantastic, it’s wonderful, unless it’s school choice. That’s where people like Butzin suddenly do an about face. No longer is choice any good. No longer should Americans be allowed the freedom to choose an education path that works for their children. Suddenly, whether it’s Democrats like Driskell or liberal advocates like Butzin, the boogeymen of education come out to steal money, to fleece parents, and to defraud taxpayers.
In short, Americans are too uneducated when it comes to making education choices. For that, we should trust Democrats and their political allies, the teacher’s unions.
That’s basically the Democrat argument, and it’s a losing one.
Accountability is a winning argument
Recent polling shows that even though a supermajority of parents (67.9 percent) are satisfied with their public schools, 53.7 percent of parents considered or are considering choosing a new school. Rather than fight something that so many Americans (let alone Floridians) clearly support, Democrats should instead embrace that reality while holding the line on accountability that they’ve already staked out.
That can start with the question of means testing. Should wealthy parents who are already ponying up the dough to send their kids to an expensive private school suddenly be eligible for a voucher worth over $7,000 per year, per student? It’s a valid question, worthy of debate.
Certainly, the cost of Renner’s proposal will go up dramatically without income limits on the program. Those dollars will have to come from somewhere, and whomever is on the losing end of that budget battle will undoubtedly have something to say about it.
With Republican supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, Democrat voices in Tallahassee have never been weaker. But there’s no reason their limited voting power needs to be further hamstrung by teacher unions forcing Democrats to stay in the trenches to defend the outdated concept of traditional public school funding.
School choice is already here in Florida. It’s working for hundreds of thousands of families. The time has come for American public education to transform itself into something that empowers parents to rethink their children’s education and make the right decisions for their kids about how and where they learn.
But Democrats are right that we also have to be wary in this bold new world, and watch out for scams, false promises, and gimmicks. Because unlike a new mobile phone or ratchet wrench that doesn’t work as advertised, parents can’t “return” a year of their child’s public education and get a refund.