Dominic Calabro is telling a story, and perhaps not surprisingly given his 39 years leading Florida TaxWatch, he can tell a story about changing public policy in a way that leaves his listeners thankful for his leadership and understanding the importance of his organization’s work.


He remembers a constitutional amendment proposed in 2008, and in the 75-word amendment summary there was a hold harmless provision for the policy change, but in the fine print of the amendment, the hold harmless was limited to just one year. Calabro noticed the difference immediately, and then he fought for the three words that would rectify the discrepancy — “and annually thereafter.”

Noting the importance of “neutral, professional research for leaders and policymakers,” Chairman Pat Neal opened the board meeting and Education Summit of Florida TaxWatch held in Orlando on May 22-24, 2019. The summit brought together board members, leaders, and policymakers to discuss “the issues that are most critical to Florida’s success,” with a focus on “two of the most critical topics in education in Florida right now: school choice and workforce development.”

Balancing the budget is harder than it looks

The summit is designed to be interactive. The TaxWatch State Budget Game shows “participants that while cutting services, cutting taxes, or raising revenue may seem simple, there are always difficult choices to be made, and each choice that the legislature makes impacts real Floridians.” When there is breaking news about a forest fire that creates a $500 million setback, the teams have to regroup. A conference committee convened at the end of the game gives the process a real world feel.

School choice

David Osborne is the author of “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System.” After sharing the stories and experiences of districts including New Orleans and Denver, Osborne says, “I believe what we are seeing here is the emergence of a new model of how we run our districts.”

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Osborne described the industrial era model of schooling and the challenges urban districts currently face before laying out his 21st century model, including “a network of autonomous, accountable public schools, operated by independent organizations; operating authority decentralized to the schools; control through fewer rules, more accountability for results; different kinds of schools for different kids; parents have choice and dollars follow children so parents have leverage; and no monopoly, schools compete for children.”

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Kurt Kelly, the CEO and President of the Florida Coalition for Children, moderated a panel on school choice and education reform including David Osborne; Erika Donalds, Chairman of the School Choice Movement; Adam Miller, Executive Director of the Office of K-12 School Choice for the Florida Department of Education; and John Kirtley, creator of the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Tampa Bay and board member of Step Up for Students, a nonprofit providing 100,000 scholarships to low-income Florida children each year. You can see in these tweets this was no kumbaya panel, and a wide range of views were shared and respectfully debated.

Dr. Jeffrey Skowronek, former professor at the University of Tampa where his research focused on children with learning differences and disorders, talked about building therapeutic educational environments, spotlighting the work of Pepin Academies, a charter school for children with special needs and learning-related disorders. He walked those attending the summit through what a day of school looks like for 3rd to 12th graders. “Belonging leads to learning,” he says.

Principal leadership and student scholarships

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The Florida TaxWatch Principal Leadership Awards opens doors and changes lives for students through college scholarships. The award “uses empirical data to identify those principals whose leadership and dedication has raised the bar for student achievement.” And then the principals are given the opportunity to select a student from each winner’s school to receive a 2-year Florida College Plan Scholarship. This year these principals were honored: Tracy Bowers, Wewahitchka Elementary School; Kristina Alvarez, Alexander Center Elementary; Rhonda Williams, Barbara Hawkins Elementary; Mike Fantaski, Addie R. Lewis Middle; Karen French, Ferrell Middle Magnet; Mason Clark, Golden Gate Middle; Bill McElroy, Professional Academies Magnet at Loften High; Paula Evans, Professional & Technical High; and Victoriano Rodriguez, International Studies Charter.

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During a principal leadership roundtable, the team and board of Florida TaxWatch listened. Really listened. Principals talked about doing whatever it takes from riding the school bus to serving as a sub to being in the community when there has been a shooting. Across the issues of managing time, recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, and developing talent, two themes emerged: the importance of being present and visible, and the importance of building trust with students, teachers, and the community. The principals agreed that both impact whether stakeholders end up being “receptive to the challenge” of educating our students.

Workforce education

Charles Hokanson, the Senior Vice President for Florida Community Engagement for Helios Education Foundation, moderated a roundtable on workforce development and education, including Chancellor Marshall Criser, State University System of Florida; President Greg Haile of Broward College, Tim Vanderhoof, Senior Vice President of Business Development for Enterprise Florida; and Ken Lawson, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The roundtable discussed “how Florida can reach Governor DeSantis’ goal of the Sunshine State being number one for workforce development nationwide.”

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Learning more about Florida TaxWatch

The strategic priorities of this bedrock organization include influencing public policy to benefit the taxpayers of Florida, working with the 2019 Constitutional Government Efficiency Task Force (GETF) on appointments and the report, ensuring the health of the organization, expanding the digital and traditional media footprint, and enhancing member engagement.

The public policy priorities of the organization include assisting the new Governor and administration with transition, collaborating with the GETF by working with state leaders on the appointment of members and assisting them in making their recommendations, promoting e-fairness (the collection of legally-owned sales and use taxes connected with out-of-state transactions completed online or through other remotely transacted sales), reducing the business rent tax, ensuring the integrity of the state appropriations process, requiring financial literacy education as a requirement for high school graduation, pursuing prison population reduction strategies, and promoting economic growth.

On March 14, 2019, Florida TaxWatch released this report on “Independent Assessment of the Economic Impacts of the Florida College System.” This independent, evidence-based analysis compares the performance of the Florida College System to community colleges in other states and quantifies the economic impact of an FCS degree, in terms of both personal earnings and economic value to the state.

On March 20, 2019, Florida TaxWatch released this report on “The True Cost of Public Education in Florida 2.0.”

“It is critical that taxpayers have a clear and complete understanding of how much education revenue is available, how that revenue is spent, and what it is spent on. Without this understanding, taxpayers and policymakers will be unable to determine whether their state and local K-12 education systems are cost-effective. Parents will be unable to make informed decisions regarding educational programs and services that best meet their children’s needs.”

The work of Florida TaxWatch is respected, necessary, and for policy wonks even fun. in its “Session 2019 Winners” list says, “Let’s hear it for the ‘research institute & government watchdog’ group, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Many of their comprehensive studies and reports are cited in legislative testimony and media reports. Always the ‘go-to’ source for stats on hundreds of issues impacting fiscal and economic policies. And who knew they had a sense of humor? Its Game of Thrones ad, Turkeys are Coming, sets up their annual sprinkle list quite nicely.”

These are our meaningmakers and wayfinders. Please get to know them.