With each election, political experts can look at various voting patterns by certain groups to determine which issues are important to those groups. For instance, among African American voters, it is clear that issues such as jobs, quality housing, affordable health care and education consistently are the most significant. As it relates to education, more and more African American voters are embracing educational choice and are voting for candidates who identify themselves as school choice supporters.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the recent Governor’s race in Florida. Republican Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010 with just 6 percent of the African American vote. During his first term, he did not do much to improve his standing among Florida’s African American electorate – other than steadfastly support the highly popular Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. Under this program, which serves mostly low income African American and Hispanic students, 70,000 kids are able to attend a quality private school which is often far better than the traditional public school in their neighborhood.
While Gov. Scott was in the midst of campaigning for re-election against former Gov. Charlie Crist, labor unions filed a lawsuit to dismantle the program. Democrat Crist, who once supported the program, supported the unions attempt to shut down the program. In October, Reverend H. K. Matthews, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, publicly pleaded with Crist to denounce the effort. And Rev. Matthews made his arguments in terms that harkened the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, when blacks first moved from the Republican Party to the Democrats.
“The truth is that wealthy children have always had choices, whether to neighborhoods with favored public schools or private schools that only money can buy,” Matthews wrote in an op-ed. “The union cries foul when that privilege is extended to those of meager financial means.”
Matthews was joined by a coalition of black ministers in the state. The scholarship program became a huge issue in the Florida Governor’s race. When the votes were counted, not only did Gov. Scott get re-elected, he also doubled his level of African American support from 6 percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2014. That increase gave him the margin he needed to beat former Gov. Crist.
Over the years, poll after poll has shown that African American and Hispanic citizens support all forms of educational choice. Indeed, with the school dropout rates in those communities hovering around 50 percent and with the achievement gap between kids of color and their white counterparts remaining virtually unchanged, parents are clamoring for as many quality options as they can get – including publicly funded scholarships to allow their kids to go to good private schools. In the past, we have seen those parents support Democrats like New Jersey’s Cory Booker, California’s Diane Feinstein and a host of state and local Democrats around the nation who have bucked the teachers unions by putting their kids first and supporting educational choice. Florida’s recent governor’s race shows us, however, that those same parents are willing to vote for candidates who embrace those quality choice options, be they Democrat or Republican. As we move closer to the 2016 presidential race, Democrats would be wise to learn from Florida – and join the parents that they serve.
Kevin Chavous is senior advisor and executive counsel for the American Federation for Children and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform.