How CEOs can become a force for education reform

Florida is one of seven states with no personal income tax, which explains why its Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students depends on corporations for contributions. A rally in St. Petersburg today also explains why the approach strengthens education options in this state.

The rally is an annual celebration of the corporate contributors, and it has come to be a sizeable event that is attended by students, parents, educators, civic leaders, mayors, key legislators and governors. Gov.-elect Rick Scott took time away from his busy transition schedule today to speak, and the event was emceed by a University of West Florida freshman who failed third grade twice before switching to the scholarship and becoming the first in her family to attend college.

The larger point here is that executives of some of Florida’s most successful businesses gather to be recognized and to voice their own public support for the scholarship. UnitedHealthCare of Central Florida CEO David Lewis, whose company has given $20-million in tax-credited contributions in the past two years, was one of those today. He told the audience: “We are honored to be part of a program that is making such a profound impact on Florida’s children and ultimately our future.”

This is good news for education reform because it allows businesses to become partners. When the Florida law was passed in 2001, some teacher union chapters tried to organize boycotts against companies that contributed. But that period has long since passed, and companies are now so proud of their involvement they air commercials and publish advertisements. They hold joint events with Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps oversee the scholarship. They spread the word at business conferences, in chambers of commerce or executive get-togethers.

The contributions don’t impact their bottom line, of course. The companies get every dollar back as a reduction in state tax liability. But it is also true that business executives don’t take participation lightly. They do their due diligence, and they look for evidence of success and to be sure they won’t get caught up in any political controversy. That helps generate its own form of accountability, as the scholarship organization must demonstrate a solid track record and build broad-based political support.

Unlike other states where the individual tax credits tend to be solicited by and directed at individual schools, these contributions are to the cause. Corporations can’t single out which schools or students benefit. As a result, they are helping low-income students more generally and standing firmly behind private learning options and in just the first five months of the current fiscal year 91 of them have redirected $115-million.

When CEOs see that a private learning option can sometimes turn around the life of an underprivileged schoolchild, they can be powerful allies.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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