Regular readers of this website will appreciate our continued concern about the unwillingness of Florida’s Democrats to stand up for Public Education. In the past several years, while Democrats in other states have fought tooth and nail to protect the public school system, Florida’s Democrats have accepted substantial portions of the Jeb Bush formulated “school reform” package pushed by right wing pressure groups. Now it comes to light that several Democrats have even taken campaign contributions from the leaders of the voucher movement.
The legacy of Bob Graham, Reuben Askew and most recently Lawton Chiles in fighting extreme right wing efforts to hijack our public schools has been effectively undone not only by Jeb Bush and his minions but also with the help and complicity of completely spineless Democrats. It is one thing when African-American lawmakers buy into the premise that vouchers will help their communities. (For the record their is empirical data that it does not help their communities, just selected students, but that is a debate for another day.) It is a completely different issue when Democratic lawmakers representing districts where the majority of voters are against most voucher schemes vote repeatedly for voucher programs. Public opinion polls have shown that vouchers are especially unpopular with Florida’s white suburban voters, and are particularly disliked in heavily Jewish areas of southeast Florida. Yet several Democrats representing constituencies that clearly oppose voucher programs have voted for multiple voucher bills in the legislature.
The evolution of many Democrats on the issue is striking. House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders did not cast one vote for voucher legislation in his first Legislative stint which ended in 1994. As one of the leading Democrats on budget and tax matters, Saunders actively supported the program pushed by Governor Chiles that brought more accountability and better public spending to Florida’s schools. The same can be said for Senator Gwen Margolis who served as Senate President during Chiles first two years as Governor. Two decades later, both Saunders and Margolis have a voting record on education matters that are more in line with the views of Jeb Bush than the late Governor Chiles.
The willingness of many Democrats to accept contributions from John Kirtley, the public mouthpiece of the school voucher movement is stunning. We have seen in the recent past Democrats less willing to question campaign contributions and their source than some of their Republican counterparts. For example, I know of several Republicans who will not accept money from sugar companies regardless of their campaign needs. But many Democrats, who often cite an inability to raise money at the same rate as Republicans have told me that they cannot turn down potential contributions from anywhere because that would amount to “unilateral disarmament.”
In this particular case, does $500 from John Kirtley really make that much of a difference for an incumbent lawmaker? Or perhaps is this just another sign of the rudderless Florida Democrats who do not stand for a single thing and whose political agenda is more dictated by pressure groups than their constituents and advocacy groups who seek good public policy and a vibrant debate. Regardless of your views on school vouchers, many Florida Democrats are again demonstrating that standing on principle and fighting for those not represented by Tallahassee lobbyists or the Republican majority is a foreign concept to them. When the Democrats sell out so easily, they not only accept bad public policy but they undermine Democracy as well.