Dems See Victory as Rebuke of Vouchers



Now that a nationally watched election resulted in the flip of a seat from red to blue, will it mean anything in Tallahassee? Democrats in Tallahassee certainly hope so, and made clear Monday that the first casualty of the voter mandate in Sarasota should be a proposal to expand school vouchers.

At a press conference at the state capitol shortly before state Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, was sworn into office, party leaders said Republicans should back away from a plan to direct more funding to private schools or risk the wrath of voters statewide in November. “When is enough enough in the attack on our public schools?” asked state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.

Good told SRQ that protecting public education would be her most immediate priority now that she’s won a seat in the Legislature. “I am going to work hard on this education policy, as I talked about throughout the campaign,” she says. “This systematic move to privatize the education system is wrong, and I’m not going to stand for it.”

The Republican-controlled state House has advanced a bill that would increase the $1 billion spent on private school vouchers each year. Most vouchers in Florida today go to disabled students or to certain low-income students. If the new bill becomes law, it would also open vouchers to students who report bullying, harassment or other violence while in public schools. 

State Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, says he’d like to see the vouchers conversation become more bold, not for it to be stepped back. “It needs to expand way beyond bullying,” Gonzalez says. “The conversation always has to be what options are available to provide a quality education to the most number of kids.”

And Sarasota County School Board chair Bridget Ziegler says too many lawmakers see the value of school choice for the course to change. "Perhaps the referenced politicians should hold less press conferences and focus on speaking with the people they represent," she says. "I'm confident that they'd hear from many people who support school choice as a vehicle to bypass failing public schools that they are assigned to simply due to the ZIP code they reside in."

But Democratic leaders suggested Wednesday that Good’s election demonstrated that all voters—Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans—all shared a distaste for plans in the Legislature to direct more funding toward vouchers. Going into a Tuesday special election, public polls showed Good had gained an edge over Republican opponent James Buchanan, but many were stunned when she took 52.17 percent of the vote to Buchanan’s 44.8 percent; Libertarian Alison Foxall won 3 percent of the vote. The seven-point margin came in a district Donald Trump won by 4.5 percent in November 2016.

“Public funding should not be just for the 10 percent of kids in voucher schools,” said state House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. “Funding for public education should be for the 90 percent of kids who attend our public schools.”

State Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, says though that policy didn’t drive the election Tuesday. And he said the arrival of Good in Tallahassee will mean little in terms of policy. The vouchers bill already passed the House, he notes. “It’s hard to fault any parent whose child is bullied the opportunity to change schools,” Gruters says. And charter schools will continue to be an issue primarily dealt with by local school boards, not state lawmakers. 

Gruters, also the chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota, says he welcomed Good to the House and promised to work with her to the benefit of the district. But he notes that, coming into the session, she won’t have much time to influence policy before facing a tough re-election campaign in November. “And with a Democratic rep, it doesn’t matter if they represent Miami, Tallahassee or Sarasota, they will get very little done in terms of legislation because of the fact Republicans have a two-to-one majority up here,” Gruters says.

Good, though, says she will use her time to do as much as possible before session closes. “Just like in my campaign, in the legislature I am going to work everyday to do everything I can,” she says. “This district has been without representation since August. Now that’s going to change.”

SRQ Media will host a deep dive dialogue on this issue at "SB2 Rumble Parley: School Vouchers, Charter Schools and School Choice" on Feb. 20 from 5:45-7pm at the Powell Crosley Estate. Further details and tickets available at link below.

Pictured: Good speaks to Tallahassee reporters, flanked by House Democratic leadership.

SB2 Rumble

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