Florida has been at the forefront of the school “choice” movement over the past two decades. With a conservative, part time legislature, demographics representative of the nation as a whole and a champion in Jeb Bush, we became the national laboratory for different school choice initiatives.
Beginning in the mid 1990s, Bush’s Republicans pushed school “choice” and standardized testing as the solution to all that ailed Florida’s schools. Painting Governor Lawton Chiles, who supported limited charter schools, as a tool of the teachers unions, the Florida GOP was able to push vouchers and what became the FCAT as way to solve Florida’s problems.
When Jeb Bush was elected in 1998, backed by the Republican takeover of the Legislature two years earlier, school vouchers became one of the two biggest priorities for the new Governor. The other major priority of tort reform went along with the national GOP agenda of “de-funding the left,” which meant mitigating the amount of influence the trial lawyers and teachers unions could have on political campaigns.
Many longtime Republican legislators were dubious about vouchers and standardized testing. These legislators, such as Senator Jim King and Representatives Dennis Jones and Evelyn Lynn, went along with the 1999 “A plus Plan” but voiced concerns about some of the plans facets. In time, all three of the aforementioned legislators would become thorns in the side of the school choice movement in Florida. Meanwhile, several other Republicans voted against the school choice plan and a few rural Democratic legislators who had stopped voting with their party on every other issue cast questions over school choice.
Under Governor Bush, Florida became a laboratory for every right wing school choice idea floated by out-of-state think tanks. While school choice was being seen as a failure in other states, Florida was expanding its program on an almost yearly basis. Owing itself to the weakness of the Democratic Party in the state and the willingness of Democratic legislators to make deals with the GOP, school choice has become accepted by the D’s. This is in direct contrast to Democratic lawmakers in other states who have rightfully fought these dangerous measures to destroy the public school system.
All of this has happened while many Republicans were beginning to openly question the various school choice schemes. Several legislators who had voted for the “A plus Plan” in 1999 sought to put the brakes on the expansion of vouchers throughout the state and began to openly ponder changes to the FCAT standardized tests.
Many Republicans began to actively question what happened to communities and schools left behind by voucher programs. While recipients of vouchers were able to escape from failing or under performing circumstances, those that were left were put in an even more untenable position. This was true in both urban, ethnic areas and in rural areas where private and charter school choices are more limited than in cities.
Charlie Crist publicly supported school choice but did little to promote this radical agenda. As a moderate Republican who saw political value in cultivating the teacher’s unions, Crist’s indifference temporarily put the brakes on the dangerous proposals. While Crist was Governor, Bush began to export the Florida program to other states, actively lobbying legislators in states like Indiana and Utah. But here in Florida Crist gradually moved towards an education consensus working with moderates in both parties to craft compromises on funding and curriculum. This moderation prompted many conservatives to court Marco Rubio, Bush’s intellectual heir apparent, to challenge Crist in the GOP US Senate Primary. Crist’s veto of a dangerous teacher tenure reform bill pushed by Bush, Rubio and their out-of-state conservative think tank allies brought the debate front and center again.
Rick Scott’s election thrust the school choice and reform efforts pushed by right wing advocates back to the forefront. The bill tenure vetoed by Crist became law as did any number of other school choice proposals. At the same time, more and more legislative Democrats, who lack the will to stand tall on fundamental progressive issues, gave Scott their votes and vocal support.
Florida’s schools and educational achievements continue to fail, as budget cuts and ideologically motivated changes to the curriculum make Florida’s students less competitive with their counterparts from other parts of the country. Yet in many cases the Democrats have accepted this or even given the conservatives critical support in order to maintain some semblance of “influence” in the legislature. Many Democratic leaders have actually voted for voucher proposals and have supported GOP efforts to weaken Florida’s public school system.