State Politics

Election altered balance of Florida’s school choice debate

The state representatives who lost their seats last week had more in common than their political party.

Three of the six Democrats were classroom teachers who supported the teachers union — and who opposed plans to expand the school voucher program.

Voucher advocates say they invested “substantial” resources to topple the three incumbents — former state Reps. Karen Castor Dentel of Maitland, Mark Danish of Tampa and Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor — as well as former state Rep. Joe Saunders of Orlando.

Their political committee, the Florida Federation for Children, spent $1.31 million on political races in Florida in 2013 and 2014, records show.

It is hard to tell whether the investment tipped the balance in the four House races, but one thing is certain: The incumbents’ absence will be noticeable when the Legislature convenes.

“The Dems lost their entire education team,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity.

What’s more, observers say voucher expansion is likely to be on the fast track when lawmakers return to Tallahassee.

“They have the House, the Senate and the governor clearly supporting it,” said veteran lobbyist Tom Cerra, who represents the Greater Florida Consortium of School Boards and the Miami-Dade school district.

Castor Dentel, Danish, Saunders and Zimmermann were first elected to the Florida House in 2012, after the legislative districts were redrawn during the once-a-decade redistricting process. All four were endorsed by the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

Saunders did not have classroom experience, but he quickly developed an interest in education policy. He joined the three Democratic teachers in opposing voucher expansion and proposals to engage private companies in public education.

Their own bills rarely gained traction. Castor Dentel sponsored one to require more accountability for charter schools and an amendment that would have required students who participate in the voucher program to take the state assessment tests. Both failed.

The four incumbents were targeted by Republicans in 2014 not only because of their education records, but because they were running in swing districts.

The GOP invested heavily in the races. Businessman Bob Cortes, who defeated Castor Dentel, received $41,000 from the House Republican Campaign Committee and more than $50,000 worth of polling, fund-raising assistance and campaign staff from the Republican Party of Florida, records show.

School-choice supporters were also active. They have been particularly vocal since the teachers union and the school boards association filed a legal challenge to the voucher program earlier this year.

John Kirtley, a Tampa venture capitalist who chairs the Florida Federation for Children and helped craft the state’s original school voucher legislation in 2001, said the four races were “very important” to his organization.

“If these legislators had been supporters of parental choice for low-income families, we would not have invested in the races,” he said.

The federation sent out multiple mailers, one of which praised Cortes for “increasing educational options” and “providing for all children,” while accusing Castor Dentel of “leaving our children in the dust.”

Kirtley declined to say how much was spent in each district.

“Would [the incumbents] have survived without us being involved?” he said. “It’s hard to say. But our investment was substantial.”

The incumbents received a financial boost from the statewide teachers union, as well as from local teachers unions and the Florida Democratic Party.

Castor Dentel was one of the top four fund-raisers in the House, records show. She raised a total of $495,457 for her race, including at least $13,650 in contributions from teachers union groups. But she said her own spending was dwarfed by the money coming in from the Republican Party of Florida and outside groups like Kirtley’s.

“It would make sense that they would go after their biggest critic,” Castor Dentel said.

Cortes, her opponent, noted that mailers from the Florida Democratic Party attacked him for supporting voucher programs. He believes the strategy backfired.

“People called to ask if I supported charter schools and vouchers, and most were glad that I did,” he said.

Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall said the union did not have enough money to compete with Kirtley in the statehouse races. The union’s political committee spent a total of $1.1 million in Florida elections in 2013 and 2014, records show. McCall also argued that Democratic candidates were hurt by low voter turnout.

Mindy Gould, who oversees legislative affairs for the Florida PTA, said she was disappointed by the results.

“We lost friends of public education,” she said.

Incoming House Minority Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said other members of the Democratic caucus would pick up where the ousted lawmakers left off.

But Allison Aubuchon, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said the elections results reflect how Floridians feel about school choice.

“The attacks on school choice from opponents have left a bad taste for many Floridians,” she said. “Parents want choices for their children, and they are making that known.”

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. Herald/Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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