Rick Scott: Maybe some day, vouchers for all Florida students listen12/09/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today at a large church in St. Petersburg, Governor-elect Rick Scott shared the stage with three corporate executives. They were touting Step Up for Students, a tax credit scholarship that funds Florida’s school voucher program, but it didn’t take long for politics to creep in.
It’s one of those events where people in tailored suits hand off gigantic checks to nonprofit heads whilst surrounded by less fortunate beneficiaries. The nonprofit in question is Step Up for Students, which manages millions in tax-deductible corporate donations that fund school vouchers. Reviving his campaign rhetoric, Governor-elect Scott says quality education is inseparable from employment.
"Every dollar we spend says is it going to change kid's education? Are we going to make sure these kids get an education so they can get a job?"
Corporate donors that include Gap Incorporated, Walgreens, Burger King and ABC Liquors have given over $650 million to the program since it began in 2002. In exchange, they get a dollar-for-dollar tax write-off. The money funds scholarships for qualifying low-income students to go to the private school of their choice. Alternatively, it funds travel costs for recipients who want to go to an out-of-district public school. Recipient Silas Lopez’s grandmother applied for the Step Up scholarship for Lopez and his sibling and got it. Now, Lopez goes to Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland and has a 3.26 GPA.
"I am so grateful for the Step Up student scholarship and it's donors and supporters. You have given me a second chance."
The governor-elect doesn’t give any empirical data that supports the voucher system as key way to reform Florida’s crippling education system. But Scott, who reminds the audience that he spent the first part of his life in public housing, is heavy on the anecdotes.
The former medical company CEO asks why schools shouldn’t be compelled to compete for students in the same way businesses do for clients.
"Why wouldn't you have choice? I've owned lots of businesses, I've owned doughnut shops, so we got better because we had to compete with Dunkin' Donuts and a bunch of other doughnut shops. I've owned companies in manufacturing. We got better because people could choose any product that they wanted to buy. Why, in the living daylights, doesn't that apply to education?"
Last spring, the state legislature approved broader eligibility criteria for corporations seeking the education tax credit. There’s now no cap on corporate donations, and the tax credit applies to the oil and gas severance and alcoholic beverage excise taxes. The first company to donate to the program was Progress Energy Florida, and that company’s CEO Vincent Dolan says it’s about more than the tax deduction.
"While we serve 1.6 million homes and businesses around the state, more important to us is that's where our employees live and work. We want to make sure they are vital and thriving communities and we can't think of a better way than to support those efforts through the foundation."
For now roughly 33,000 low-income students are eligible for vouchers. Today Scott hints that he and the legislature may try to expand the system to all students.
"We have a great opportunity this Spring, in this session. We can make sure that we pass an education bill that is one hundred per cent for the benefit of kids. And give every child in the state the same opportunity you had. To make sure that you go to whatever school you want to got to. You have teachers that are going to get measured and the best teachers get paid the best. Knowing that your teacher is not guaranteed their job just because they show up and they got hired the first time or they are there so many years. So, we have the choice to expand the scholarship program. It's my commitment. We should have a very conservative legislature that will support it."
Critics of the voucher system say it diverts tax revenue crucial to ailing government budgets. Kim Black is President of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. She says giving vouchers to every student would result in chaos.
"When you think of the 2.5 million students across Florida trying to go to different start-up schools where the level of accountability is not the same as it is for the public school student. And the level of certification and degrees isn't the same for the teachers in those programs. I just really think that could lead to pandemonium. And I don't think that's what the taxpayers had in mind."
Scott also uses the pulpit to attack Governor Crist’s veto of Senate Bill 6, also known as the teacher tenure bill.
"Why is it so hard for us as a state to say, 'we're going to measure the effectiveness of teachers'. Do we all love teachers? Yeah. There's a lot of great teachers, and most of them are great teachers. But everybody ought to get measured."
Prior to Crist’s veto of the controversial bill, teachers feared and vehemently opposed it. Black says she’s sure something like it will come up again, but this time, teachers will be more prepared.
"It's not a fear of the unknown because we really know, we already saw what happened through Senate Bill 6. We know that there is discussion now that some of the portions of that bill will come back. I just think it's extremely important to have the teachers in the process. And since it was so poor for education then, what makes it right during this legislative session in 2011? What are the changes that the legislature is willing to make so that it is something the community, the parents, the teachers and the students can accept for this next legislative cycle?"
During his speech, Scott repeatedly talks about the importance of accountability.
"I ran on get the state back to work, fix education, tort reform, fixes in insurance and those issues. I said, 'hold me accountable.'"
But as he exits the church, the governor-elect refuses to answer questions from reporters.