Crist Celebrates Florida Scholarship Program

Published February 1, 2009

Denisha Merriweather is one of 22,000 students receiving K-12 scholarships to attend the school of her parents’ choice in Florida this year—and she has a compelling story.

The progress she has made as a junior has impressed even Gov. Charlie Crist (R).

“Denisha is a young woman who has found a new spark in her life,” Crist said at a school choice rally in Jacksonville. “She has turned around her school career because she found a school that connected with her. God bless her.”

Impressive Turnaround

Before receiving a scholarship through the state’s corporate tax credit program five years ago, Merriweather failed third grade—twice. She missed school repeatedly, recorded Ds and Fs in her classes, and found herself in verbal conflicts and physical fights with other students.

Now she is an honor roll student at Esprit de Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville with a 3.8 grade point average. She spends her free time volunteering for the Police Athletic League and is the statewide vice president of the Youth Directors Council in Florida.

Merriweather is planning to start college this fall and hopes later to become a geneticist.

“The last five years have completely changed my life,” Merriweather said. “If it weren’t for the scholarship program, I might have been one more student who drops out of school and just another statistic. My school ended up being a perfect fit for me. It was the first time in my life that I actually believed in myself.”

Giving Back

Merriweather shared her story with the governor, local dignitaries, corporate donors, and more than 600 parental choice supporters at The Potter’s House Christian Academy, a local scholarship school, at the rally on November 10.

Florida’s corporate tax credit scholarships—called Step Up For Students scholarships—provide annual tuition support up to $3,950 or transportation scholarships of up to $500 to out-of-district public schools for students whose families meet the federal guidelines for free and reduced-price lunches.

In its first six years the program has been fueled by more than $400 million in corporate contributions. At the November rally, three companies—Fidelity National Financial, PSS World Medical, and Walgreens—were honored for their commitments to low-income students. Walgreens has contributed $26 million since 2006. Fidelity presented a check for $2.3 million and PSS World a check for $1 million at the rally.

“Our contributions over the past three years have provided scholarships for more than 6,500 children throughout Florida, giving them the opportunity to receive the education they deserve,” said Debra Garza, Walgreens’ divisional vice president of government and community relations. “It’s only right that we give back to those families who make our community strong—because our companies couldn’t exist without them.”

Gaining Momentum

The scholarship program has become more popular with Florida companies and policymakers each year, with a strong bipartisan majority in the legislature voting last May to expand its reach to more than 25,000 students a year.

Crist, who signed the expansion bill in 2008, called the scholarships “an example of what we need to do to adapt public education to a new century.”

“We are no longer just competing with other states in this great nation, but with other countries as well,” Crist said. “Step Up For Students scholarships are helping us to diversify our education system to achieve greater results and provide our children and future workforce with a world-class education.”

Fighting Crime

Crist was joined in his praise by retired Duval County Sheriff Nathaniel Glover Jr. and former state Rep. Terry Fields (D-Jacksonville). Glover, a police officer for more than 35 years and Florida’s first African-American sheriff since the Reconstruction era, was the featured speaker.

Glover said he strongly believes the most effective tool in combating crime is education, and he dedicates his time to encouraging students to stay in school and pursue higher education.

“The reality of what our youth face today is devastating,” Glover said. “Just last year, more than 4,100 Duval County youth were charged with delinquent crimes, and 18 percent of those were charged with committing violent felony offenses. The link missing for many of these children is the proper education.”

The rally, called “More Choices, Better Futures,” is held each year to recognize the vital role corporations play in Florida’s school choice program.

Jillian Metz ([email protected]) writes from Tampa.