School Choice Gains Unlikely Advocates in Florida

Published December 1, 2008

Two new hires at the Florida School Choice Fund have made waves in the movement.

The Tampa-based organization seeks to advance public policy giving parents the power to choose the educational institution that best suits their child’s needs. So it was a surprise when two formerly outspoken critics of school choice joined the fund’s staff in August and September.

Doug Tuthill is the new president of the Florida School Choice Fund. At one point in his career he was a teachers union leader who reportedly told the St. Petersburg Times vouchers were “based on false assumptions and faulty logic.” But Tuthill says he has been a supporter of school choice all along.

“I’ve been an advocate for school choice for 25 years, so it’s really not a new thing for me,” Tuthill said. “I started the first international baccalaureate program, which was one of the first choice programs in the 1980s. I have been advocating for school choice for quite some time—I just haven’t supported it across the board.

“There have been some choice programs that I didn’t support because they were not set up properly,” Tuthill explained. “What you’re seeing now is much more sophistication about accountability in these programs. I have always been in support of choice, just not programs that were poorly designed.”

Skeptical Public

Some members of the public have expressed concern about the new hires.

“Some people that I admire are skeptical of my motivations, but they should know better,” said Jon East, the group’s new communications director and former editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times who joined the fund in September. “In some ways it’s been a window on the narrowness of the public debate on this issue. There is very much a polarization and idea that you have to be either for public schools or school choice, and there is no middle ground. But I am really for both.

“I’m into serving children and their parents, and giving them the opportunity to choose the school that is best for their needs. If people would turn down the temperature on the debate and stop the finger-pointing, they would see what we do serves kids very well, and we don’t always have to be at odds,” East continued.

Changed Opinion

As a journalist, East wrote numerous articles criticizing school choice. He says now the motivation for some of those stories was misinformation.

“I became a critic of school choice in 1999 and wrote articles that reflected that,” East said. “I think the newspaper saw the choice movement as an attack on the institution of public schools.

“It may have been [that] in the beginning, but most of the people in the education community who strongly support public schools missed the point and have not allowed themselves to look at what these efforts are trying to do,” East continued. “If you look closely at what we do here, helping low-income kids get better learning environments, you can’t see it as anything but providing better opportunity for the students of Florida.”

Jon Kirtley, chairman and founder of the Florida School Choice Fund, said the new hires show how school choice has evolved in the state.

“The hires of Doug and Jon are reflective of a changing environment for K-12 education in Florida,” Kirtley said. “The overwhelming bipartisan vote in our 2008 [legislative] session expanding the tax credit scholarship is another example. People are becoming more concerned with children and outcomes, rather than systems and inputs.”

Natural Evolution

East has been a journalist for more than two decades. As a highly respected reporter, he covered education issues and was seen as a staunch critic of school vouchers. His reputation as an effective communicator who was highly knowledgeable about the education system made him attractive to the Florida School Choice Fund when the position opened earlier this year.

“I was lured into taking this position by Doug Tuthill,” East said. “And I realized that this is really a perfect match for me. Education advocacy is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

“Having been a journalist my whole life, I’ve had to keep a distance between myself and the topics I cover, even when writing editorials,” East continued. “And after some time, I felt that I could do more by working in the industry rather than just commenting on it as a journalist.”

Easing Tensions

Tuthill said he and East, with their combined experience, will help ease the tension between teacher unions and school choice advocates, ultimately leading to better opportunities for Florida children.

“The transition has been great,” said Tuthill. “Jon East and I were recently in Tallahassee for a meeting with school boards and teachers associations, and the politics in Florida have changed pretty dramatically. There is large bipartisan support of the tax credit program, and there is a growing bipartisan movement in terms of school choice.

“The education establishment is looking to find common ground,” Tuthill continued. “One of the reasons why Kirtley wanted us in these positions is because we can bring people together from both sides of the issue. It’s been a great experience so far, and we have gotten positive feedback from all sides.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.