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School choice advocate makes compelling case for Tax Credit Scholarships in Tallahassee speech

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In an impressive display of how to dismantle an opponent’s arguments point by point, school choice advocate John Kirtley this week made a compelling case for Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

His argument: The program fits squarely within the state’s overall approach to education, despite critics’ claims that it violates the Florida Constitution. It is a part of, not a distraction from, public education.

In addition to being legal, Kirtley noted, the program is smart for all Floridians, by keeping school districts around the state from having to find enough classrooms overnight to accommodate 80,000 children. That’s how many kids – all poor and mostly minority – would be booted from their existing schools if a lawsuit against the scholarship program succeeds.

Kirtley estimates the cost to build new spaces for even half the kids at more than a billion dollars.

Kirtley, a venture capitalist long involved in education reform efforts, laid out his case to the Economic Club of Florida, addressing a “Who’s Who” crowd in Tallahassee that included former governors and Florida Supreme Court justices.

Even though he didn’t mention the state teacher’s union lawsuit until almost the end of his speech, Kirtley carefully explained how the Tax Credit Scholarship program no more clashes with the Constitution than do other highly regarded education options.

The union raises two primary arguments against the tax credit program, saying it violates the Constitution by allowing some of the children it serves to attend religious schools and by running counter to language that requires “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools.”

Moving methodically through the arguments, Kirtley pointed out that money from the state treasury already is used by students at faith-based, non-public schools through popular programs like Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten, Bright Futures, McKay and Gardiner scholarship programs for students with unique abilities. Unlike these programs, the money in the Tax Credit Scholarship program never touches the state treasury.

He said “uniformity” is not a good guiding principle for public education with today’s diverse Florida students.

Florida’s innovations like online education (through the Florida Virtual School), magnets, charters and dual enrollment programs between high schools and community colleges show that Floridians are willing to embrace new models and broader definitions. But they’re certainly not “uniform” with traditional public schools. Take down one, and you may take them all down.

The fact that union leaders depend on the courts to get rid of a program that effectively helps 80,000 poor kids – and the state overall – suggests that their arguments can’t prevail on the public policy merits.

It’s not clear whether Kirtley won his Economic Club audience entirely to his side, but a lot of heads were nodding in agreement – or at least understanding – by the time he finished making his case.

The fate of the scholarship program now rests in the hands of judges, but the arguments that support it sure make a lot of sense.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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