More than 4,000 school choice supporters traveled from as far as Miami and Ft. Lauderdale to join the nation’s largest school choice rally in Tallahassee on April 12, calling for passage of a half-dozen bills to expand and protect school choice in Florida.
The rally–the fifth held annually by Step Up For Students, a Florida advocacy group–broke all previous attendance records. Wearing T-shirts that read “Many Faces, One Dream,” people representing nearly 35,000 scholarship students statewide expressed their desire for legislators to view school choice as a nonpartisan issue.
Gov. Charlie Crist (R) delivered the keynote address and was applauded for affirming his support for the state’s corporate tax credit scholarships and McKay scholarships for disabled students, as well as his dedication to a quality education for all Florida’s children.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that all children, regardless of the financial resources of their parents, have the opportunity to realize their full potential,” Crist said. “Every child in Florida deserves an equal opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”
Civil Rights Issue
Another speaker was the Rev. H.K. Matthews, a civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Matthews said he determined over the past year that the fight for school choice is an extension of his life’s work.
“This is a flashback of the old movement,” said Matthews, who has been jailed 35 times for staging various protests. “All of us who are here want what’s best for our children, our parents, and our state.”
State Sen. Alfred “Al” Lawson (D-Tallahassee) pledged his support for school choice and promised to continue representing his constituents’ interests on the issue.
Moving testimonies were given by Sharonda Perkins, the mother of a scholarship recipient from Tallahassee, and Alberto Garrido, a Hialeah student who has received scholarships for the past five years. Both discussed how the corporate tax credit scholarship program has affected their lives.
“If it were not for the second chance this scholarship has given me, I might have slammed the door to my future by dropping out of school, joining a gang–and to be quite honest, I don’t even know if I’d still be alive,” Garrido said. “I am making my parents proud, but more importantly, I am proud of myself for the strides I have made.”
Rally organizers, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools, National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, Florida Chamber of Commerce, and Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the event demonstrated to the state legislature the programs’ success. They asked for additional support of the bills.
|School Choice Bills Pending in the Florida Legislature
(as of May 10, 2007)
|SB 2470||Sen. Stephen Wise
|Provide additional protection to the Corporate Tax Credit (CTC) and John McKay Scholarship programs and expand them to include children in foster care. The bills would also add increased attendance flexibility to enable homebound disabled children to utilize the McKay program.|
|HB 7145||Rep. Joe H. Pickens
|HB 465||Rep. John Legg
|SB 2380||Sen. Daniel Webster
|Provide CTC scholarships for children in failing schools, and help provide additional legal protection for the CTC program.|
“The Step Up For Students Scholarship Program offers low-income children the opportunity to choose an educational setting that best suits their learning needs,” said Susan Story, chief executive officer of Gulf Power–a Pensacola-based company that is one of the largest electricity companies in the world.
“Education should not be a one-size-fits-all [thing],” Story continued. “Offering parents educational options encourages creativity and student achievement similar to how competition in the business marketplace drives innovation and success. We must help all our struggling students step up to success, regardless of their socioeconomic class.”
Florida’s corporate tax credit program–also known as “Step Up For Students scholarships”–provides K-12 vouchers to 17,000 low-income Florida students to attend a private school or out-of-district public school. Every cent of corporate contributions goes directly to funding scholarships. Under the law, none can be used for administrative costs.
Jill Metz ([email protected]) writes from Florida.