House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spent his Valentine's Day in the V.M. Ybor section of Tampa on Friday, taking part in a fundraiser for CD13 GOP candidate David Jolly at the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, then taking the short walk over to Academy Prep Center of Tampa. There, he spent 45 minutes hearing from teachers, parents and students who are involved with the acclaimed, private prep middle school for low-income students.
Cantor is making education reform a signature issue in what he says is the fight to end poverty, and his visit to Tampa follows previous field trips in the past year to inner-city schools in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, and his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
"We are looking around the country to find models that work for education choice," he said at the end of his visit to the Tampa school. "And the basic premise is ... the best kind of education is the education that works best for the individual child."
Students are able to attend Academy Prep because they received scholarships through the Step Up For Students program administered through the state. Cantor wistfully mentioned several times during the roundtable discussion that he wished his home state of Virginia provided such a program.
"I'm going to take back with me this concept as we look in Washington to expand educational opportunities for more kids," he said.
And again he called on the Senate to take up the Student Success Act, a House-passed overhaul of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law that removes many federal mandates and returns more power over education policy to the states. The bill is opposed by most Democrats; still, Cantor has an amendment that would allow states to use federal funding earmarked for low-income families for charter schools.
Although the Florida Supreme Court struck down the Jeb Bush-created Opportunity Scholarships voucher program for children in chronically failing public schools in 2006, it left intact two other voucher programs in the Sunshine State. One is the McKay Scholarships, which allow K-12 students with disabilities—including intellectual, vision, hearing or learning—to choose to attend another public or private school. And then there is Step Up For Students, which allows kids to attend Academy Prep.
"These schools are gems when it comes to the most vulnerable kids," he said at the press conference, repeating what he had said during the roundtable discussion. "These are not kids that have been the cream of the crop. These are some of the most challenged kids."
School union officials believe there can be a different way, however.
"A better solution would be to provide the resources and the support to make all our public schools as good as they could possibly be," says Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow in an email to CL. "Creating a separate school system—funded by taxpayers and with little of the accountability traditional public schools have—makes no sense. It’s clear that there are some politicians who offer little support to our public schools, which have done so much to educate Americans, build our middle class and bolster our democracy. "
On the most important issue affecting Tampa Bay area residents—the huge increases in flood insurance rates that have sent premiums sky-high since the Biggert-Waters Act became law in October—Cantor announced earlier this week that the House will hold a vote on broader flood insurance reform measures later this month, though he has not specified what will exactly be in the bill.
"The goal was reform. To make sure that we moved towards viability and sustainability of the program," he said in defense of the much-loathed federal legislation. The current federal flood insurance program is in debt to the tune of $24 billion.
"We want to make sure through these modifications that will be voting on ... that it is affordable, and it's actuarially sound, which means premiums have to be paid, and they can't be too high and not get paid because then the program will not be actuarially sound," Cantor maintained. "We're trying to strike that balance between affordability and soundness of the program, and I know how badly it's needed in this area."
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner declared definitively that immigration reform was off the table for the House to consider in 2014. CL asked Cantor if he still supports a Dream Act type of bill that would address the undocumented children who came to the U.S. through no fault of their own.
He says he still does.
"I feel very strongly that we should provide them access to citizenship in this country," Cantor said.
When asked about a timetable for making it happen, he replied that "obstacles abound in Washington, and trying to remove those are what we're about."
Based on the fact that the issue was supposedly a priority for the Republicans after the 2012 presidential election, one can surmise that Cantor and friends haven't been successful at all in removing said obstacles.