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Reflections on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship’s 15th birthday

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series celebrating 15 years of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Join us in the coming months as we take a look back on the program’s beginning and look ahead to serving more students in the future.

By JOHN KIRTLEY

john-kirtleyI’m not a baseball fan, but I love the movie “Bull Durham.” In the film, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon compliments Kevin Costner for approaching the minor league home run record. Costner remarks that it’s a dubious honor – it means he’s spent an awful long time trying to get to the majors. That’s how I feel sometimes when I realize I have been working for the cause of parental choice in education for 20 years. If I were any good at this, shouldn’t the job be done by now?

Nothing like the parental choice movement to make you appreciate incremental progress. But on the 15th anniversary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), I look around and see so much to be thankful for. When the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush created the FTC in 2001, school choice in Florida was in its infancy. The definition of “public education” was pretty simple: raise taxpayer dollars to educate kids, give all the money to the districts – which run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner – and assign kids by their ZIP codes.

How far we have come since then. Today, more than 30 percent of K-12 children funded by the taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters and virtual schools. They take classes under dual enrollment programs at colleges and community colleges. They now even combine providers and delivery methods at the same time. And yes, some children even attend private schools, including faith-based ones.

The FTC is a small but critical part of this new definition of public education. This year the program is serving 92,000 children, who are attending more than 1,600 private schools chosen by their parents. This sounds like a lot—and it’s more than I ever thought we would serve – but it’s still a pretty small number in context. There are 2.8 million students in Florida’s public schools (including magnets and charters). So the FTC still represents only 3 percent of that total. But to each scholarship family, it’s the most important thing in the world. Research shows the FTC kids are the poorest, and poorest performers, in their public schools when they leave. The scholarship empowers poor parents to find an environment that better suits their children’s unique needs.

The FTC – along with the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special needs children – makes available an option that would otherwise be off the table: private and faith-based schools. My 20-year experience has taught me that these schools must be available to poor and special-needs kids. They aren’t for everyone, certainly – but for some of these kids, they are the only place they will thrive. I can’t tell you how many students over the years have told me, “I was going the wrong direction, but the environment at my school set me straight,” or words to that effect. These schools must be a part of our new definition of public education.

Back to the Bull Durham analogy: I would have thought that by now, after 20 years, everyone would have accepted and embraced the FTC. Especially with more than 30 percent of all publicly funded students choosing! But no. After all this time, and after all its proven success, there is a lawsuit to shut down the program and evict more than 92,000 poor children. Why would opponents to choice focus on the program with only 3 percent of the kids, and the poorest and poorest performers at that? Maybe because it’s the fullest expression of parental empowerment.

The silver lining to this lawsuit is that it has galvanized the scholarship parents and their community leaders to fight to maintain this precious power. More than 10,000 people came to Tallahassee this year the day after the MLK holiday to hear his son, MLK III, denounce the suit. Coalitions of over 200 African-American and Latino ministers around the state have formally demanded the suit be dropped. I am proud to be a foot soldier in this most important battle.

One of the many rewards of being in this movement is fighting with these choice warriors. Parents. Students. Teachers and Principals. Ministers. Names you will never know. Names you know, like MLK III and Jeb Bush. Names you should know, like the Rev. H.K. Matthews – one of Florida’s most revered civil rights leaders. All of them fighting for parental empowerment.

I am so grateful to all of them, just like I am grateful to all the legislators of both parties who have supported the program. I’m grateful to the donors who have embraced the program.  I am also so grateful to all the employees of Step Up For Students, who run the program with such transparency and accountability that has consistently earned a four-star rating – and this year a perfect score – from Charity Navigator, the largest independent evaluator of nonprofits in the country.  And I’m so grateful that a former president of the Pinellas teachers’ union decided to call me up in 2006 to discuss common ground. Doug Tuthill is now president of Step Up and ably running it as I never would be able to.

My dream when the program debuted was that it would survive (which was not certain in the beginning). Then my dream was that we would someday reach 100,000 children. Now my dream is more ambitious: that someday every low-income parent in Florida – and the country – will be able to choose the best school for their children, regardless of who runs it.

Happy 15th birthday, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Congratulations, Step Up  For Students!

John Kirtley is founder and chairman of Step Up For Students.

 

 

 

Synchrony Financial donates $1 million to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST|

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – Synchrony Financial, a premier consumer financial services company with an 80-year heritage, has announced a $1 million donation to Step Up For Students to provide scholarships for financially disadvantaged children in Orlando.

synchrony logoThe donation marks the first time that Synchrony Financial has partnered with Step Up For Students. Synchrony Financial’s contribution will fund about 165 K-12 scholarships for financially disadvantaged Florida children so they may attend a private K-12 school, or an out-of-district public school. The scholarships provide an opportunity for recipients to find a school that fits their individual needs and lead them toward a more prosperous future

“We’re pleased that this donation will provide children with a real opportunity for educational success. Synchrony Financial is committed to addressing the needs of today’s working families, which includes providing enriching and safe places for kids to be while their parents are working,” said Margaret Keane, Synchrony Financial president and CEO. “Educational opportunities are crucial to opening doors to hope for a better future. Working with Step Up For Students is a true embodiment of our purpose statement to improve the success of every business we serve and the quality of each life we touch.”

Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to qualified lower-income K-12 schoolchildren throughout Florida. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.

“We are truly grateful to have Synchrony Financial as a partner in our mission to ensure that lower-income children have choices in their education,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “With their help, we are providing access to Florida’s children to an educational environment that best fits their learning need, and will also positively affect our communities in the future.”

During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students expects to serve more than 91,000 students throughout Florida, with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Synchrony Financial has had a presence in the Orlando area since 1983, and recently increased its commitment to central Florida this summer with the opening of a second site.

The original location in Longwood is primarily a customer support site.  The second location, in Altamonte Springs, will provide customer service and collections support across all of Synchrony Financial’s business platforms. The 102,000 square-foot space features training and conference rooms with advanced technologies including telepresence capabilities, an on-site dining venue and employee fitness center.

Synchrony Financial employees in the Orlando area have provided nearly 300 volunteer hours so far in 2016 with a number of local nonprofit agencies.

Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill (back row left) is presented with a $1 million check by Synchrony Financial representatives (back row left to right) client operations manager Susan Sepiol, vice president of corporate citizenship Denise Yap and vice president of operations Heath Arnsperger. They are joined by several of Synchrony Financial’s top community service volunteers.

Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill (back row left) is presented with a $1 million check by Synchrony Financial representatives (back row left to right) client operations manager Susan Sepiol, vice president of corporate citizenship Denise Yap and vice president of operations Heath Arnsperger. They are joined by several of Synchrony Financial’s top community service volunteers.


About Synchrony Financial

Synchrony Financial (NYSE: SYF) is one of the nation’s premier consumer financial services companies.  Its roots in consumer finance trace back to 1932, and today the company is the largest provider of private label credit cards in the United States based on purchase volume and receivables*. Synchrony Financial provides a range of credit products through programs we have established with a diverse group of national and regional retailers, local merchants, manufacturers, buying groups, industry associations and healthcare service providers to help generate growth for our partners and offer financial flexibility to our customers. Through its partners’ more than 350,000 locations across the United States and Canada, and its websites and mobile applications, the company offers its customers a variety of credit products to finance the purchase of goods and services. Synchrony Financial offers private label and co-branded Dual Card credit cards, promotional financing and installment lending, loyalty programs and FDIC-insured savings products through Synchrony Bank. More information can be found at www.synchronyfinancial.com, facebook.com/SynchronyFinancial, www.linkedin.com/company/synchrony-financial and twitter.com/SYFNews.

*Source: The Nilson Report (May 2016, Issue # 1087) – based on 2015 data.

 

 

 

 

Donor Corner: Humana Inc.

By Lisa A. Davis

New Humana logo (002)Humana Inc. (NYSE: HUM) is more than a health insurance company, it’s a healthy living leader that is committed to enriching the communities it serves both in serving its customers’ needs and promoting healthy lifestyles, as well as giving back to the communities through philanthropic opportunities.

The company, based in Louisville, Ky., is so committed to healthy living that it has recently introduced a “bold goal” to meet in only five years: Humana 2020, an initiative to help communities it serves to be 20 percent healthier by 2020.

“That’s an ambitious goal,” said Humana spokesman Mitch Lubitz. “And it’s one we’re committed to achieve.”

In addition to five other key Humana business markets throughout the country, this “bold goal” is set for the Tampa Bay area, where Humana employs nearly 4,000 associates and serves more than a half a million members in what is considered one of the company’s biggest Medicare and Medicaid markets. For this community initiative to be successful, Lubitz said, Humana must work closely with community thought leaders from government offices, community organizations and beyond to identify the health needs throughout the region.

Part of community wellness, Lubitz said, is education. Not just educating people to choose healthy lifestyles, but making sure children grow up with a solid educational foundation. Humana has worked with public school districts, including Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, through grants, to help foster healthy living among youngsters.

Humana first partnered with Step Up For Students in 2010 to support the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to fund scholarships for K-12 low-income schoolchildren so they can find the best school for their learning needs. Since then, Humana has contributed $7 million, including its 2015 tax-credited donation of $3 million, which will provide about 500 scholarships.

“Education is an integral part of the conversation,” Lubitz said. “This is a great example of why we want to foster that mission of helping our youth and children to become better educated and have a healthier life. It’s very clear that Step Up For Students delivers positive results for the students and the community, and that’s something that makes sense to be part of as a major area employer and as a member of the Tampa Bay community.”

Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill said he is grateful to Humana and the partnership, especially since the two organizations’ programs help many people in the same populations.

“We are so thrilled with this partnership, and we think it will continue to be a strong one since programs like Medicaid benefit the same low-income families in which we are assisting in their children’s, and in many cases, grandchildren’s education,” Tuthill said. “We couldn’t be more pleased to work with Humana.”

Teachers unions, school choice & the Democratic Party’s retreat 

Editor’s note: This post originally ran Oct. 20 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.  This post was part of  its series on the center-left roots of  school choice

By Doug Tuthill

Pres-Desk_Final resizeMuch of the opposition to private school choice seems to emanate from the Democratic Party, but this wasn’t always the case. Just look at the party platforms.
From the 1964 to 1984, the Democrat Party formally supported the public funding of students in private schools.The 1964 platform stated, “New methods of financial aid must be explored, including the channeling of federally collected revenues to all levels of education, and, to the extent permitted by the Constitution, to all schools.” The 1972 platform supported allocating “financial aid by a Constitutional formula to children in non-public schools.” The 1976 platform endorsed “parental freedom in choosing the best education for their children,” and “the equitable participation in federal programs of all low- and moderate-income pupils attending all the nation’s schools.”

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

Thanks to the influence of U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat and devout Catholic, the party’s 1980 platform stated “private schools, particularly parochial schools,” are an important part of our country’s educational system. It committed the party to supporting “a constitutionally acceptable method of providing tax aid for the education of all pupils.” In 1984, the platform again endorsed public funding for “private schools, particularly parochial schools.”

Then the shift began. The 1988 platform was silent on the issue, and by 1992 the Democrats had formally reversed position, stating, “We oppose the Bush Administration’s efforts to bankrupt the public school system — the bedrock of democracy — through private school vouchers.”

The party’s current position on school choice was formalized in 1996. That year’s platform endorsed the expansion of public school choice, including charter schools. But it also reiterated “we should not take American tax dollars from public schools and give them to private schools.”

The Democratic Party’s shift from supporting to opposing public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools can be traced back to an event that also helped spur the growth of modern teachers unions: The 1968 teachers strike in New York City.

This strike pitted the low-income black community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn against the primarily white New York City teachers union. The issue was whether local public schools would be controlled by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community or by a city-wide bureaucracy.  The union vehemently opposed decentralization since its business model was built around a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement with centralized management.

The strike lasted from May to November 1968. Given school districts are usually the largest employer in most communities, union power quickly grew.

Since its founding in 1857, the National Education Association had long seen itself as a professional association and not a union. But the spread of industrial unionism in school districts across the country forced the NEA in the 1970s to begin transforming itself into an industrial-style union.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. In exchange, former NEA president Richard Batchelder told me the NEA asked Carter to create a federal Department of Education, and to reverse the Democratic Party’s support of public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools, among other things.

Changing this policy was complicated by the strong support of Sen. Moynihan and the Catholic Church.  But in the 1970s the power of the rapidly growing teachers unions was beginning to eclipse the influence of Catholics within the Democratic Party.

In 1977, Moynihan proposed a tuition tax credit for families with children in private and parochial schools, and he recruited 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats to co-sponsor the bill. But the Carter Administration worked with the teachers unions to successfully kill it.

A more recent version of this Catholics-versus-teachers-unions battle has been playing out in New York.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo has formed an alliance with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, to advocate for a tax credit scholarship program to help low-income and working-class families. But the teachers union has had enough clout with Democrats in the State Assembly to twice defeat it.

Now, communities of color are becoming an increasingly important part of the Democratic Party coalition.  How long teachers unions can set the party’s education agenda in the face of growing influence from blacks and Hispanics who tend to favor educational choice is an intriguing question. Publicly-supported private school choice programs are expanding across the country, as are charter schools, which teachers unions also see as a threat to their business model. Eventually, wiser heads within the Democratic Party will want to address this rift.

In Florida, where more than 100,000 disadvantaged students are participating in private school choice programs, Democrats who oppose these programs have struggled to win statewide elections.

In the 1980s, I saw the NEA reverse its opposition to magnet schools and other forms of within-district school choice once a critical mass of teachers in these programs joined the union. I suspect the same thing will happen with private school choice once teachers unions expand their business models to include private-school employees.

Until that happens, their opposition to equal educational opportunity will remain at odds with the Democratic Party’s other core constituencies.