If parental choice is to be an educational litmus test for Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat, then he might surprise the politicos who are tracking the 2014 gubernatorial race. There are legitimate reasons to believe Crist, who formally entered the race on Monday, will support at least some forms of private school choice. The way he has embraced scholarships for low-income students is the best clue.
In his term as governor, Crist not only signed a major expansion of tax credit scholarships in 2010 but was a persistent advocate for the nearly 60,000 students – poor and mostly of color – who now take advantage of it. As such, the public record is replete with enthusiastic endorsements. At the 2010 bill signing ceremony, which included Republican and Democratic legislators, Crist called the scholarship “extraordinary” and said the bill “gives families the power to do the most important thing they do – make sure they find a school that fits their child’s needs.” At a rally in 2008 at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, he said the scholarships “are helping us diversify our education system to achieve greater results and provide our children and future workforce with a world-class education.” At an event in Fort Lauderdale in 2009, he told supporters “I am confident we will continue to provide more educational opportunities and options.”
Perhaps most notable, though, was his speech to more than 5,500 students, families, educators and advocates who rallied March 24, 2010 at the State Capitol in support of tax credit scholarships. As a matter of disclosure, Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, organized that rally. It also produced this three-minute video about the event that provides context. The governor was clearly energized by the crowd, and his full remarks can be viewed in this clip.
“I’m so proud of the progress that we have made in education in Florida,” Crist said for openers, “And it’s all because of you and because of great teachers and great principals and choice. The power of choice in education is unstoppable. God bless you for pushing it.”
He continued. “We must make sure that every student gets an excellent education in the Sunshine State, and that’s exactly what you’re here about,” he said. “It is never a one-size-fits-all approach. Florida’s greatest strength is our great diversity, and every student should have an education that suits you. And your parents should have the power of choice no matter what the economics might be.”
In perhaps his most prescient comment, Crist spoke to bipartisan support: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m so proud to tell you that regardless of party Florida stands for you. There is no partisan politics about kids. It’s all about doing what’s right first and foremost. There it is – school choice is nonpartisan. You’re not kidding. It really is. As long as we put the children first, we cannot get it wrong. We’re going to continue to do that, continue to fight for you to make sure that you have the power of choice.”
Even if the cynics assume insincerity in his public comments, the election narrative for Crist argues for staying the course. At a time of hyper-partisanship in America, one of his best paths back to the Governor’s Mansion is to emphasize the extent to which he found ways to work across the aisle. He appointed Democrats to state agency jobs and to various boards and commissions, even hugged a Democratic president. The smart play is to hold on to those parts of his Republican term that remind people he worked with Democrats, and the tax credit scholarship is one clear example. The 2010 bill received the support of almost half the Legislature’s Democrats, and standing next to Crist as he signed the bill into law was Sen. Al Lawson, an African-American who was Democratic leader in the Senate. (Lawson now serves on the Step Up board of directors.)
Maintaining his support for the tax credit scholarship program also allows Crist to show he is not controlled by the state teachers union. While the Florida Education Association’s endorsement is an important asset for any Democrat, the late Bill McBride, a respected Tampa lawyer who challenged Gov. Jeb Bush’s re-election, was hurt in the general election by the perception he was more beholden to the union than the general public. The FEA opposes all school choice options not covered by their collective bargaining contracts, including scholarships for low-income students. So continuing to support this scholarship enables Crist to show a little distance between him and the union.
Finally, as attorney general and governor, Crist received support from black legislators and civil rights organizations, and he will need their enthusiastic backing if he is to win as a Democrat. The scholarship program, in part because it serves so many underprivileged black schoolchildren, has powerful support in black churches and among local NAACP chapters. These are the kinds of groups that can push turnout, and he knows their enthusiasm is critical.
In politics, of course, there are no guarantees, and Crist has made some remarkable conversions on key political issues since his 2010 U.S. Senate Republican primary tangle with Marco Rubio. But either Republican Crist or Democrat Crist could have told those low-income children in 2010 that “there is no partisan politics about kids,” so there is reason to believe he might repeat those words in 2014.