By Sean Higgins
Florida Gov. Rick Scott did something Tuesday that Republicans rarely do in elections: He doubled his share of the African-American vote from the last time he ran, picking up 12 percent on Tuesday, according to exit polls.
Education reform advocates such as former D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous are pointing to that as proof that black voters responded to Scott’s support for school choice and his willingness to take on teachers unions.
"That’s the reason why Rick Scott won that election," said Chavous, now executive counsel for the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group. "He really had no base of support in the African-American community but for this one issue."
Scott defeated Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, 48-47 percent, in an election that saw higher African-American turnout than when he first won office in 2010. That year, African-Americans accounted for 11 percent of the overall vote with more than half a million casting ballots. Only about 6 percent of blacks voted for Scott.
Four years later, African-American turnout rose to 14 percent of the overall vote, with just under 800,000 casting ballots. This time about 12 percent voted for Scott. The total votes Scott received from the community rose from 34,000 to 95,000.
That 61,000-vote increase is particularly noteworthy because it almost entirely accounts for Scott’s final margin of victory over Crist, which was about 66,000 votes.
Ever since the civil rights battles of the 1960s, Republican candidates have done very poorly among African-American voters, with their percentage of the vote often in the single digits.
Educational choice is one area in which Republican and African-American opinion overlap. An August nationwide survey of 2,269 people by the group EducationNext, a project of Stanford University, found that a strong plurality of African-Americans, 47 percent, supports charter schools. Only 29 percent oppose them.
Scott has been on the forefront of the issue and had repeatedly clashed with teachers unions who see them as a threat to traditional public education, which is heavily unionized. Shortly after taking office in 2011 he expanded the state’s tax credit scholarship — or voucher — program, which gives state business a 100 percent tax credit for contributions to state-approved educational nonprofit groups.
The program serves an estimated 67,000 students, most of whom are black and Hispanic. Many of the schools involved in the program are run by or affiliated with black churches.
The same year he signed legislation that created merit pay for teachers, ended tenure for new hires and required teachers to be evaluated. Scott has even suggested the state could benefit from a law that would turn public schools into private charter institutions if they performed poorly enough.
The 3 million-member National Education Association and the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers staunchly oppose such policies. The two unions have a joint state branch, the Florida Education Association, that filed suit along with the Florida School Boards Association in August to end the tax-credit program.
"It diverts state revenue for the purpose of creating an unregulated hodgepodge of private schools," FEA attorney Ron Meyer said when the suit was announced.
Scott responded that killing the voucher program was an "unconscionable" action that would "have terrible consequences on the lives of Florida's poorest children."
A prominent Florida figure in the civil rights movement, the Rev. H.K. Matthews, publicly urged Crist to denounce the lawsuit. Crist had supported the tax voucher program when he was the state’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011. Now a Democrat seeking union support, he refused to defend it.
"He runs the risk of estranging black voters who would otherwise support him," Matthews told the Miami Herald in September.
The two unions were prominent in the race and donated a combined $1.75 million to Crist's political action committee. That's not counting the money the union spent themselves on the race and or their heavy involvement in Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts. AFT President Randi Weingarten even spent the final weekend of the election campaigning against Scott.
John Kirtley, a Tampa venture capitalist and vice chairman of the Alliance for School Choice, noted that Crist's victory strategy depended on huge, enthusiastic African-American turnout.
"He had Biden, Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton all here in South Florida at the end, all going to the churches. But I have to wonder how enthusiastic some of the churchgoers were, knowing that their schools will be closed if the union lawsuit wins, and Crist endorsed the suit?" Kirtley said.
Scott, meanwhile, tried to build some inroads with the black community, holding meetings with Manuel Sykes, a prominent St. Petersburg pastor and school voucher supporter who switched parties and joined the GOP in October.
"Standing up for this program and having these pastors rally around him made a huge difference," Chavous said. "The union having candidates who say that everything is fine [with public education] just isn't going to work."