Stick Up at the School House Door - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Stick Up at the School House Door

Politicians hate it when different voting blocs of their party get crosswise on an issue. See unions and enviros, both groups loyal to the Democrat party and who often don’t see eye-to-eye.

Private sector unions want economic growth and the jobs (and resulting union dues) that go with it. Enviros, on the other hand, usually already have cushy and well-paying jobs in some soft sector, and are more interested in delivering their universal and invariable message, to wit: NO!! (What other cultural or political group has a philosophy and program that can be summed up in one word?) 

The union in this case, the Florida Education Association, represents Florida’s government schoolteachers. The FEA, along with the Florida PTA and the Florida School Board Association, has sued the state, demanding it put an end to its K-12 school voucher program. The other Democratic voting bloc in this case is black Floridians, the chief beneficiaries of the voucher program.

Of the fewer than 70,000 Florida students the voucher program serves (out of almost 2.7 million K-12 students in the state), about 70 percent are minorities. Across Florida, many black political leaders and black parents like the program, which gets their children out of bad government schools into private schools where they have a better shot at a good education. These folks would like to see the program expanded, not put to an end.

Rick Scott, Florida’s incumbent Republican governor, opposes the suit. Democrat (for the moment) Charlie Crist, who wishes to take Scott’s job away in the November general election, supports the union and Big Education over minority children. This puts Crist in conflict with a voting bloc Crist very much needs on his side and voting if he has any hope of prevailing November 4.

Both the union’s suit and Crist’s support of it are acts of pure self-interest and in no way support the interests of Florida’s K-12 students. The union and the army of employees of Big Education in Florida have contributed millions to Crist’s campaign. Schoolchildren? Well, not so much. So they’re on their own hook. “Sorry, kid. You’re too young to vote. And you didn’t send your lunch money to my campaign.”

The union’s motive seems even more Grinch-like. The $357 million spent on the voucher program is a trifle, a rounding error, compared to the $19 billion the State of Florida and Florida localities will pour into K-12 education this year. And the voucher money doesn’t even come directly from the state treasury. It’s collected through tax credits for corporations that contribute to the program.

Trifling amount or no, Florida’s teachers union does not want anything to threaten its gravy train, its direct line into the Florida treasury and Florida taxpayers’ wallets. If the voucher program is $357 million today, it could, union officials fear, one day be billions in tax dollars that otherwise would flow into their pockets and the pockets of those they collect dues from. Better to stamp out this contagion now before it grows. And of course it’s embarrassing to FEA and its members that the students who go to private schools with voucher help achieve more than students who idle in government schools.

While Scott opposes the FEA suit, that doesn’t mean he isn’t also sucking up to Big Education. In 2011, rookie governor Scott, whose state needed $3.3 billion in cuts to balance its budget, reacted to Big Education’s money-bloated budget line in this sensible way: ““Every school district is going to have to figure out how to do better with less.” They could have done so.

But this thrifty approach didn’t go over well with Florida voters, many of whom insist on seeing something that doesn’t exist, i.e., a relationship between money spent on education and student achievement. So in 2014, Scott is hoping to be seen as “the education governor,” and says he is “proud to announce that in the upcoming legislative session we will propose an increase in Florida’s per pupil spending to the highest level in our state’s history.” So far he hasn’t even attempted to convince voters that this record spending will do anything other than further enrich the Education Industry.

Expenditures for K-12 education across the nation, adjusted for inflation, are a multiple of what they were short decades ago. In Florida per pupil spending is up more than 40 percent just since 2001. But student achievement has not multiplied along with the money spent. Misfortunately, most voters have not noticed this, and therefore react favorably to politicians who propose to spend (or, in the case of Democrats, “invest”) more and more in education. Political consultants charge preposterous amounts to advise their clients that just mentioning education wins them votes.

This isn’t just a state and local dementia. Candidates running for offices that should have nothing to do with K-12 education can’t resist getting into the act. George W. Bush talked so much about education in his 2000 campaign that I thought for a while he was running for the office of National Schoolmarm. Of course, W did stick the federal oar more into local schools at great expense for no measurable result. His brother Jeb, who as you read this is trying to decide if Americans would stand for being Bush-wacked a third time, is obsessed with the subject of education.

So I guess Scott and Crist are simply behaving rationally. Voters have set up a series of political incentives, and these candidates are following them. Crist’s incentives are just a little more complicated on this one as he has to parse whether he would lose more union votes by opposing the suit than he would lose black votes for supporting it.

Whatever these two candidates promise, we can be sure at least of this. No matter which way yesterday’s vote went, very few graduates of our extravagantly financed government schools would be able to find Scotland on a map today.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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