How do we empower parents?

John Kirtley

Guest blogger John Kirtley is the founder of two private equity firms in Tampa, FL. He is the chairman of Step Up For Students, a non-profit that administers the tax credit scholarship program and which now empowers the parents of nearly 40,000 low income Florida children who attend a private school of their choice, and of the Florida Federation for Children, a "527" political organization active in Florida legislative races. He is vice chair of the American Federation For Children, a national parental choice advocacy organization, and also a board member of the Florida Charter School Alliance and the Hillsborough County (Tampa) Education Foundation.

The most important governance question is: “Will low income and working class parents truly direct the taxpayer dollars used to educate their children?”

The definition of “public education” is changing rapidly, even if some don’t want it to. It used to mean giving taxpayer dollars solely to districts to operate all schools, where kids are assigned by zip code. The emerging definition, which I prefer, is using taxpayer dollars to educate children in the best way possible for each of them, using a variety of providers and delivery methods.

Parents with enough means already direct dollars—their own—to the best education providers for their kids. Parents with means move to neighborhoods with good public schools, or pay tuition for a private school. Increasingly, these parents combine delivery methods and providers. The president of our non-profit, the former president of one of the largest teacher union locals in Florida, exemplifies this trend. His son’s senior year combined classes at his zoned district school, classes over the internet at the Florida Virtual School, and dual enrollment at a local college. It was the ultimate in customization.

But what about parents who can’t afford to exercise choice by purchasing a home in the right neighborhood or paying tuition at the right school? They must be empowered to direct the dollars that are already spent on their children. They must be able to direct those resources to a district-run school, a charter school, a provider of content over the internet, or even a private school.

Every other governance and reform issue is affected by this one.

If parents can direct the dollars to another provider, it increases the chances that other reforms will be adopted quickly and effectively. Tenure reform, merit pay, more dollars to the classroom—they all will be implemented faster and better if the district knows that parents can move their children.

If parents can direct the dollars to another school, it increases the chances that other reforms will be adopted quickly and effectively.

Parents must be truly empowered, however. They can’t just be empowered to choose charters, as some reformers believe. In most states, there is a surprisingly large inventory of private schools that are already serving low-income children. In some of these places there are few charters—sometimes (but not always) because the district is slow to authorize them. In Duval County, Florida, for instance, the district has only thirteen charters despite its large size (over 150,000 students). And not all of them serve low-income children. By contrast, there are over 100 private schools in the county that serve low-income children under the state’s tax credit scholarship program.

Low-income and working class parents must be empowered to choose these schools, with taxpayer dollars. Why not? With proper accountability, transparency, and oversight, the providers offer a vital solution.

Another advantage of full empowerment: It encourages the creation of powerful coalitions for choice that don’t exist with partial measures. In 2001, the Florida legislature created the tax credit scholarship program with only one Democrat voting in favor. In 2010, when the program was aggressively expanded, half the Democrats in the House and a third in the Senate voted in favor—as did a majority of the combined Black Caucus. That year Democrats clamored to speak at a rally where 5,500 low income parents and children came to the distant capitol of Tallahassee to endorse the bill (see the video here). I have not yet seen a demonstration of support for choice or reform on a similar scale anywhere else in the country.

Full empowerment of low income parents can be the “tip of the spear” for all other reforms. It can also create coalitions where none were before possible. For these reasons, it has my vote as the most important governance issue.

Ed. note: For more on the importance--and complexity--of empowering parents, be sure to read the New York Times' recent Room for Debate forum on parent trigger laws.

While editor Peter Meyer is taking a brief sabbatical from his biweekly blog, Board's Eye View will host a series of guest blog posts from a range of experts and stakeholders answering The BIG Question: What's the most important governance issue? Meyer encourages readers to interact with our TBQ contributors or contact him directly at [email protected] if they would like to submit their own TBQ essay.