Less than two weeks before Election Day, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Politico that the 2016 contest could be “a transformational election for the state Legislature in Florida.”
Weingarten proved a prophet. But not quite in the way she envisioned.
Hoping for an electoral mandate that would create a “pro-public education caucus,” Florida’s state legislative elections instead resulted in a substantial strengthening of support for school choice in the Sunshine State.
The Florida Federation for Children, a state affiliate of the American Federation for Children, won 20 of the 21 races in which it endorsed a candidate. Most of those races were highly competitive.
Th victories came despite a union-backed legislative redistricting effort completed earlier this year intended to roll back bipartisan school choice majorities. Instead, those majorities were strengthened.
John Kirtley, vice chairman for the AFC and chairman of Step Up For Students, which provides tax credit scholarships for low-income students in Florida, says the 2016 election indicates voters take school choice into consideration when they are casting their ballots.
“This election cycle in Florida showed the strength of parental choice as an issue,” Kirtley told Watchdog.org. “Due to a recent redistricting process, which made the maps more favorable to Democrats, the union expected to replace many choice supporters with foes.”
But the Florida Education Association didn’t rely solely on new maps. It spent more than $1 million on a single race, to re-elect Democratic state Sen. Dwight Bullard in a majority-Democratic district in Miami-Dade County. That was an amount nearly equal to the entire FFC budget for the campaign.
Bullard lost anyway, to Republican state Rep. Frank Artiles.
Overall, the Florida teachers union spent $2.7 million on state legislative races, according to campaign finance records.
“The Florida teachers union outspent the Florida Federation for Children by three to one, yet the number of parental choice supporters in the legislature actually increased,” Kirtley said. And, he pointed out, the school choice advocates are not just from one party. “Two pro-parental choice Democrats, Darryl Rouson and Daphne Campbell, won their Senate primaries against union-supported candidates.”
In the House, the union tried and failed to take out state Rep. Manny Diaz, the likely incoming chairman of the K-12 Subcommittee and one a strong advocate of school choice running in a district with a slight Democratic lean.
The FFC’s efforts included television advertising that featured scholarship parents and a ground game in which parents made tens of thousands of phone calls and knocked on voters’ doors in key races. Some of those parents took the election personally — their children are at risk of losing their scholarships because of a union lawsuit that threatens the program.
Kirtley contends the school choice victories in the face of redistricting that favored Democrats is a clear indication that Florida voters are examining candidates’ positions on school choice before voting.
“It wasn’t a ‘Trump wave’ that caused this result,” Kirtley said.
“In two of the Senate races where the Republicans won against the union-backed candidate, Hillary Clinton won the district,” he said. “In three of these races, the Republicans ran ads featuring minority parents thanking the candidates for supporting the scholarship program that their children are using. Could it be that parental choice is an issue that positively moves voters in both parties? This cycle in Florida seemed to indicate so.”