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Coalition's Backing of Vouchers Highlights Democratic Divide

September 30, 2014 - 6:00pm

In a move that highlights the political crosscurrents confronting Democrats on education issues, a coalition emphasizing the benefits of state-approved vouchers for low-income students called Wednesday for the Florida Education Association to drop a lawsuit challenging the program.

The Save Our Scholarships Coalition, which held a conference call with reporters to draw attention to the request, consists largely of African-American, Hispanic and Jewish leaders -- some of whom have constituents who are parts of key Democratic voting blocs in Florida. But the coalition is at odds with the state's largest teachers' union, which often provides resources and organizational muscle for Democratic candidates.

The coalition's leaders are not exclusively Democrats by any means. For example, Julio Fuentes, head of the Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, often supports Republican causes and candidates.

But in remarks on the conference call Wednesday, he underscored the demographics of those who receive the 68,000 awards from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, as the voucher system is formally known,

"Many of these children are minorities and come from economically disadvantaged families," Fuentes said. "We have an army of motivated educators who are willing to roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution."

H.K. Matthews, a civil-rights leader, also joined the call to question the motives of Florida Education Association leaders fighting to undermine the program.

"I cannot, for the life of me, fathom why these educators are willing to jeopardize the well-being of the state's poorest students," Matthews said.

At the same time, the lawsuit filed in August to challenge the voucher program is supported by the Florida NAACP and a Jewish rabbi -- highlighting the complicated fissures within Democratic voting blocs over the tax-credit system.

The lawsuit says the $357.8 million program, which provides tax credits to companies that donate money to nonprofit entities that pay for children to go to private schools, violates constitutional limits on aid to religious institutions and the Legislature's responsibility to fund public education.

Without the scholarship program, the tax dollars businesses would otherwise owe the state could be used to help fund public education, voucher critics say.

Joanne McCall, vice president of the FEA, said Wednesday that her group didn't intend to back away from its lawsuit. She said lawmakers should instead provide the support necessary to build up the state's public schools.

"If they did all of those things, there would be no need to have any kind of scholarship programs," McCall said.

The dispute comes at an awkward time for Democrats, who are trying to beat incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott in next month's election. Scott wasted no time in flaying the FEA lawsuit when it was filed, but Democratic candidate Charlie Crist -- a former Republican governor who later became a Democrat -- has been more cautious about the program.

The section on Crist's website devoted to education policy doesn't address the voucher program beyond a promise that, if elected, Crist would "ensure that corporations receive the same tax incentives for investing in Florida's public schools as they do for investing in private schools." The Crist campaign did not respond to a question Wednesday about whether he believed the FEA should drop its lawsuit.

The debate has also dogged at least one group whose members are generally supportive of Democratic candidates.

In September, the state NAACP ordered its St. Petersburg chapter "to immediately cease and desist all activities in the name of the NAACP," at least in part because of a decision by chapter President Manuel Sykes to speak out against the FEA lawsuit. The NAACP has also essentially ousted Sykes as head of the local organization.

In a letter announcing the action, the state organization also cited alleged management issues with the St. Petersburg branch, but Sykes said what drove the action was his support for the scholarship program and mistaken reports that the chapter would take part in a protest against Duke Energy.

Sykes said he believes the NAACP is genuinely concerned about the possibility of the privatization of education in Florida -- a concern he shares despite being the founder and owner of Bethel Community Christian School, which accepts students who receive the tax-credit scholarships. But Sykes said he's concerned about students who are in failing schools now.

"I don't sacrifice people in the interim," Sykes said.

And he also said it was "risky" for Democrats to oppose the program, given the number of minority parents who depend on it.

"They're exasperated," he said. "They see their children not doing well."

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