Halloween inspires some eye-catching campaign mailers, including one in the race for Florida's next attorney general. An electioneering group sent a mailer in mid October 2010 with a photo of Democratic candidate Dan Gelber on the front that describes him as "Toxic to Jewish Education'' with those words written in dripping blood-red, scary-looking type.
Has he been lacing kosher meals at Jewish schools with arsenic? Ordering lead paint to be used at yeshivas? Oy vey!
The other side of the mailer provides more details. It states: "Dan Gelber: On the record against scholarships to help our needy children attend Jewish private schools. ... Call Dan Gelber and remind him that there is nothing pathetic about our children's right to obtain a Jewish education!"
Gelber, a Jewish Democrat, is running against Republican Pam Bondi on Nov. 2, 2010. But it wasn't Bondi who distributed the mailer: it was the Committee for Florida's Education, an electioneering communication organization.
Though Bondi's campaign has repeatedly been quoted in news articles denying involvement, there is a connection to her campaign. The Miami Herald reported Oct. 29, 2010, that Bondi campaign spokeswoman Kim Kirtley is married to John Kirtley, vice chairman of the American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group, which gave $255,000 to the Committee for Florida's Education. Mr. Kirtley is also a Tampa-based Republican fundraiser and the American Federation was the only donor to the Committee for Florida's Education.
Kim Kirtley sent an e-mail to PolitiFact Florida: "In response to your questions -- I reiterate that neither the campaign, or me personally, had any knowledge of the flier. John and I are both professionals who work in the political process, but his work is his own, and mine is my own."
For this Truth-O-Meter, we will research, is Gelber "on the record against scholarships to help our needy children attend Jewish private schools?"
Let's note at the start that the state and the mailer call these "scholarships" though they are often referred to as vouchers. And Gelber has been a firm opponent of vouchers ever since they appeared in Florida 10 years ago.
The mailer cites a handful of votes Gelber took involving school vouchers, as well as some of Gelber's quotes in newspapers during the past decade. We will examine both.
School voucher background
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law in 1999 starting vouchers, which he called "Opportunity Scholarships," that allowed students who attended schools that received an "F" two years in a row based on FCAT scores to transfer to private schools or higher-performing public schools. In 2001, the state started the Tax Credit Scholarship Program to allow corporate donors to give money to nonprofit scholarship-funding organizations, which then give scholarships to poor children. The companies in turn received tax breaks from the state.
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the private school portion of the 1999 program, and the Legislature passed a bill to allow students who received those Opportunity Scholarships in the past to get the tax credit scholarships if they qualified based on having a low income.
Today, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program gives a maximum scholarship of $4,106. For the 2010-11 school year, 524 of these vouchers are used at Jewish schools out of 29,651 -- or about 1.7 percent, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.
The students must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches to qualify.
Multiple mailers about Gelber
Now, back to the committee that produced the mailers.
Elnatan Rudolph, chair of the Committee for Florida's Education, is a Jewish political consultant who lives in New Jersey and is a former Teaneck, N.J., council member. He would not tell us his current party affiliation but said in the past he has been affiliated with both parties. He said he has relatives in Florida, including some who attend Jewish private schools.
The committee has sent seven mailers about Gelber to 50,000 South Florida voters, Rudolph said. It also sent a mailer about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, and did newspapers ads on Gelber, Sink and Democratic CFO candidate Loranne Ausley. One of the newspaper ads about Gelber, which ran Oct. 22 in the Jewish Press of Pinellas County, was a "Wanted" poster for "crimes against Jewish education.... Voting 'No' on funding for Jewish schools." All of the mailers and newspaper ads are about vouchers.
Gelber's votes and quotes
Gelber, first elected to the state House in 2000 and the state Senate in 2008, has voted several times on vouchers. The mailer cites bills that Gelber voted "no" on that ultimately made it into law:
• HB 21 May 4, 2001: A bill that related to taxation, including providing credit against taxes for contributions to nonprofit scholarship-funding organization.
• SB 256 May 4, 2006: In the wake of the Florida Supreme Court declaring the 1999 Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional, this bill allowed those students receiving Opportunity Scholarships -- if they were poor -- to transfer to the tax credit scholarships.
• HB 653 May 2, 2008: Expanded the corporate income tax scholarship program, including making foster care children eligible.
• HB 453 April 28, 2009: Made some revisions to the scholarship program.
• SB 2126 March 24, 2010: Made still more changes to the program.
Let's note here that none of those bills involved Jewish schools specifically.
Now a look at the newspaper clips the mailer cited:
• "This program needs major reformation. It's an embarrassment." St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 24, 2003. The article was about the state education commissioner at the time, Jim Horne, calling for an investigation into the Silver Archer foundation after about $400,000 in voucher money went missing. The article doesn't quote Gelber on his views on missing vouchers money, but here is his full quote: "I don't want to prejudge Silver Archer -- I don't know what they did -- but this program was an invitation for fraud waste and abuse. This program needs major reformation. It's an embarrassment." This article doesn't support the claim in the ad -- it just shows Gelber was concerned about fraud.
• "Pathetic is zealously pursuing voucher programs that are not merely unconstitutional, but that bleed resources from a school system that can't afford to lose a dime." Gelber wrote an editorial for the South Florida Sun Sentinel July 4, 2005, that listed several things he found "pathetic" in response to Bush calling the Florida Democratic Party pathetic for payroll tax lapses.
• "Floridians want us to fix public schools not push some right wing agenda to privatize schools." Gelber was quoted in the Miami Herald Feb. 16, 2006, in an article about Bush calling for a constitutional amendment on private school vouchers about a month after the Florida Supreme Court tossed out the state's first voucher program as unconstitutional.
• "We are funding vouchers while rolling back Bright Futures." Gelber was quoted in the Tampa Tribune March 30, 2010, in a story about the Democratic attorney general primary race. (He isn't quoted as bluntly bashing vouchers in this article although Rudolph sent us an Oct. 11, 2009, Palm Beach Post article in which Gelber and fellow Democratic state Rep. Dave Aronberg, who lost to Gelber in the August primary, clashed on vouchers. The bill expanded eligibility for tax credits to insurance companies but didn't enlarge the $118 million scholarship program, the Post wrote. Aronberg voted for the bill while Gelber voted against it.)
Gelber disputes the claim because he said it portrays him as voting for something specific to Jewish schools, while the vouchers apply to private schools in general.
"There was no vote on Jewish schools,'' said Gelber in an interview. "I don't support the voucher program."
Gelber campaign manager Christian Ulvert added in an e-mail:
"Dan Gelber aggressively fought for stronger accountability and for reforms in an effort to protect taxpayer dollars. And while he opposes voucher programs because they drain resources from the public school system, they are here in Florida and as such should have strong accountability measures."
We asked Rudolph why he felt it was a fair statement to suggest that Gelber was "on the record against scholarships to help our needy children attend Jewish private schools" when in fact his votes related more broadly to private schools -- only a small fraction Jewish, less than 2 percent.
"He voted directly against money that is going to help needy Jewish children attend Jewish day schools. There is no way to say he voted against the whole program but did not mean it for one specific group,'' Rudolph said in an interview. "He voted against a program that funds needy Jewish children being able to afford to go to Jewish day schools. ... That's a fact."
We say no, that's not a fact. While Gelber has repeatedly voted against and criticized vouchers for any students, he has no record at all of voting against Jewish education, and it's a crass twist of logic to claim otherwise. Characterizing his long opposition to the voucher program as a direct vote against needy Jewish children is flat-out wrong. We rate this claim Pants on Fire.