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Former school choice student: Keep fighting for kids like me

Denisha Merriweather and Gov. Jeb Bush at the Foundation for Excellence in Education conference on Nov. 21. (Photo by Eric Draper.)

Denisha Merriweather and Gov. Jeb Bush at the Foundation for Excellence in Education conference on Nov. 21. (Photo by Eric Draper.)

Gov. Jeb Bush offered the opening address at his foundation’s annual education conference last week. But the former school choice student who introduced him may have stolen the show.

Denisha Merriweather has been doing that a lot in recent months.

Since May, the former tax credit scholarship student and now college grad from Jacksonville, Fla., has been featured in a video for the American Federation for Children;  been spotlighted in another video that ran on TV during breaks in Florida’s gubernatorial debates; penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal; and sat down for interviews with local press in Jacksonville. Each time, she moved a debate too often stuck on myths and abstraction on to concrete ground: Her life.

Don’t let school districts and teachers unions kill the scholarship program, she told attendees at the Bush conference. (The program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Don’t let them throw nearly 70,000 scholarship recipients out of schools that are working for them.

“You can’t see them but you can see me,” Merriweather said. “And so you can see what is possible when you give a kid a chance at a quality education.”

Here are her remarks in full.

Good morning. My name is Denisha Merriweather.

This year I graduated from the University of West Florida with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social sciences.

I specialized in children and society, which led me to work in a Dominican Republic orphanage over the summer.

And there I learned how truly blessed we are to live in America.

Next year I will enter the University of South Florida’s joint master’s program in social work and public health.

After that I will let passion and opportunity be my guide.

Maybe instead of just being the first member of my family to have a college degree, I’ll be the first to have the title Doctor in front of her name.

You would hardly have guessed such an outcome from my childhood.

I was born into poverty in Jacksonville, Florida.

My life was disrupted by constant moves.

I was held back twice in school and felt out of place in classrooms with kids two years younger.

I was disruptive and often got into physical fights with the other kids.

I was failing in school because I hated school.

All too well, I could see my future. 

I would drop out and spend the rest of my life trying to make ends meet.

But that didn’t happen because of something my godmother discovered called the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

It provided tuition for me to attend the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning.

That changed everything. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: School choice politics, magnet schools, testing & more

Tax credit scholarships. The Florida teachers union may have cost Democrat Charlie Crist the governor’s race by filing suit against the tax credit scholarship program and alienating black voters, writes Lloyd Brown at Sunshine State News. (The school choice program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

florida-roundup-logoMagnet schools. Pasco begins taking applications Dec. 1 for its first magnet school. Gradebook.

Charter schools. Nearly 50 have shut down in South Florida in the past five years. NBC 6.

Testing. State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, files a bill to limit to 10 the number of days districts can set aside for standardized testing. Orlando Sentinel.

Teacher conduct. A former high school band director in Osceola is arrested for reportedly having sexual relationships with two students. Orlando Sentinel.

Campus crime. A second Sarasota County student is arrested for operating a prostitution ring involving students. Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Students with disabilities. River Ridge High in Pasco offers a club that fosters friendships between students with disabilities and students without disabilities. Tampa Bay Times.

Science. Middle school students in Miami-Dade show off science and innovation skills by designing new shoes. Miami Herald.

Middle schools. Duval looks for ways to boost the performance of its middle school students, among the most struggling in the state. Florida Times Union.


Leading minister: Why are FL school boards attacking options for poor kids?

Bishop Curry

Bishop Curry

Efforts to defend Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the largest private school choice program in the country, have gained a powerful new ally: Miami Bishop Victor T. Curry. One of Florida’s most influential ministers, Curry used his radio program Nov. 11 to rally supporters against the lawsuit filed in August by the Florida teachers unions, Florida School Boards Association and other groups. You can read excerpts below.

Until the suit was filed, Curry had been a quiet supporter of the 13-year-old scholarship program; the school he heads, Dr. John A McKinney Christian Academy, serves about 120 scholarship students. But it’s clear from the remarks he made during the radio program that he is now all in.

It’s also clear the lawsuit is getting more attention in the press and beyond. A number of media outlets have noted exit polls that show Republican Gov. Rick Scott gained ground among reliably Democratic black voters (see herehere and here). The latest: This Nov. 22 op-ed in the Miami Herald by Christopher Norwood, a member of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida. Scott’s gains among black voters, he wrote, are “remarkable for a candidate who had no urban agenda, except for corporate scholarships for low-income students, an issue that’s overlooked by Democratic strategists … ”

Curry’s comments have been edited slightly for length and clarity. (You can hear some of them by clicking on the audio box below.) As always, we note the scholarship program is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

We can’t keep talking out of both sides of our mouths. Some of the very people that vote against this, and those who are a part of this lawsuit, parade themselves in our churches and in our communities and they tout that they want the best of education for our children. Well, we have to be holistic in our approach. We never said that private is the only tool. Or public is the only tool. For some children, private is the best fit. I am hoping and praying that there will be a change of minds and a change of hearts and hoping that someone will have the sense to just drop this suit …

I believe, fervently, in public education. I was just given a major award (by the Florida Education Association) … I have always supported United Teachers of Dade and I’ve always supported the Broward Teachers Union. Listen, I worked as a teacher’s assistant at South Area Alternative School right across from Hallandale High. I was a teacher’s assistant at MacArthur Senior High School. Yes I was. And I also spent a few years in Miami-Dade County in a classroom at Civil Bluff Elementary and part of a year at Madison Middle School.

I am not, and I will never, ever be, anti-public education. I am able to walk and chew gum at the same time. … These scholarships that we’ve been talking about are very much a part of our collective moral commitment to provide equal educational opportunities for our children. They strengthen public education, not diminish it.

We named (the Dr. John A. McKinney Christian Academy) after a man who spent 35 years in public education. Dr. John A. McKinney was the first principal who opened Turner Tech. His wife spent over 25 years in public education as a principal, as a school teacher. Ronda C. McKinney. Our whole education wing is the Dr. John and Ronda McKinney Educational Wing.

So we support public education but at the same time there has always been private education as well as public education. This is not a competition. It is not about public or private. It is about matching each child with a school that works best for him or her. It’s about giving children, and their parents, options so they can find the one that works best for them.

I have a question. Why would the school boards association wait 13 years to file a lawsuit against this program? If it claims the constitution restricts children to attending only schools that are operated by the district, why not challenge the charter schools, or McKay scholarships for disabled students, or vouchers for 4-year-olds. Why single out poor children? Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Testing, teacher conduct, campus crime & more

Testing. StateImpact Florida answers questions about the Florida Standards Assessment, the test that will replace the FCAT.

florida-roundup-logoTeacher conduct. A jury decides a fired Palm Beach County teacher should get $337,000 in back pay and damages. South Florida Sun Sentinel. A Lee County teacher accused of sexual misconduct lied about his criminal record on his job application. Fort Myers News Press. A former Manatee County School District employee settles with the district over charges the district retaliated against her for reporting inappropriate behavior on the part of a former assistant football coach. Bradenton Herald.

School crime. A Sarasota County student is charged with running a prostitution ring with students from two high schools. Sarasota Herald Tribune.

School security. Districts statewide may be able to hire private, armed security guards in the wake of a legal opinion from Florida’s attorney general. Bradenton HeraldState Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, is bringing back a proposal to allow some school employees or volunteers to carry guns on campus. News Service of Florida.

School calendars. The St. Johns County School District considers starting the next school year Aug. 10 so the first semester can end at holiday break, but that would likely bring a wave of complaints. St. Augustine Record.

Superintendents. Seminole County Superintendent Walt Griffin and Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho are among 100 superintendents who meet with President Obama to talk about school technology. Orlando Sentinel.


FL families begin using new parental choice scholarship accounts

One of the nation’s newest parental choice programs is shifting into higher gear.

PLSAFamilies of hundreds of Florida students with significant special needs, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, have been given the green light to begin using Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts for the 2014-15 school year.

So far, parents of more than 1,200 students have been awarded PLSAs, which give them the resources and flexibility to access a range of educational services, including private schools, tutors, therapists, curriculum and materials. The Florida program is the second of its kind in the country, and some education policy experts see it and a similar program in Arizona as models for a new wave in parental choice.

Last week, the parents of 616 students were notified that they can begin using the accounts, which are administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students (which also co-hosts this blog and administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students). Parents of 298 more are expected to get the same notification in a few weeks.

The PLSA program was passed by the Legislature last spring and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on June 20. The scholarships are available to students in kindergarten through 12th grade with one of eight diagnosed disabilities. The state set aside $18.4 million for the first year of the program – enough for an estimated 1,800 students awarded an average of $10,000 each. To date, the parents of more than 4,500 students have started applications.

The scholarship accounts allow participating parents and service providers to be reimbursed for a wide range of state-approved educational services and materials. For expenses that are not pre-approved, parents can submit requests for consideration prior to incurring the expense. There is also a payment process for parents with special circumstances who cannot make purchases out of pocket.

Parents and providers can track invoices and payments electronically. Funds that aren’t used roll over to the next year. They can continue to be used for education-related expenses until the student graduates from a post-secondary education institution, such as a college or technical institute, or has gone four consecutive years after high school with no further education. At that point, the account is closed and any remaining money reverts to the state.

The application process for the new scholarships opened on July 18, two days after the Florida teachers union filed suit against SB 850, the bill that created the PLSA program. A Leon County circuit judge dismissed the suit on Sept. 24, ruling the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case. The teachers union filed an amended complaint on Oct. 22.

Parents of students with special needs have welcomed the program, and several PLSA parents are intervenors in the union lawsuit. See here and here for other recent coverage.


Former school choice scholarship student tells success story in WSJ

Denisha Merriweather

Denisha Merriweather

Switching to a different school didn’t just make dreams come true, “it allowed me to have dreams I didn’t know I could have,” writes a former school choice scholarship student in an op-ed published today in the Wall Street Journal.

Denisha Merriweather of Jacksonville, Fla., says by fourth grade, she disliked school so much she thought she’d eventually drop out. But at the urging of her godmother, and help from a tax credit scholarship for low-income students, she enrolled in a private school, graduated with honors and became the first member of her family to attend college. A few months ago, she earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science and is now headed to graduate school.

“This didn’t happen by chance, or by hard work alone,” she writes. “It happened because I was given an opportunity.”

Merriweather’s piece notes the lawsuit that the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups filed Aug. 28 to end the 13-year-old scholarship program, which is administered by non-profits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. The program serves nearly 70,000 students this fall, more than two thirds of them black or Hispanic.

Merriweather is also featured in a new TV ad, paid for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which encourages the teachers union and school boards association to drop the lawsuit. In the Wall Street Journal, she said she hopes people who care about disadvantaged children pause to hear stories like hers. Read the full op-ed on the Wall Street Journal here.

Continue Reading →


Ending school choice for 68,000 low-income kids? “That’s just wrong”

A new video spotlighting a former Florida tax credit scholarship student is urging the Florida teachers union and Florida School Boards Association to drop its lawsuit against the nation’s largest private school choice program. It appeared in some Florida TV markets last night during the gubernatorial debate between Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

Financed by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the video features Denisha Merriweather, who became the first member of her family to graduate from college and is now headed to graduate school. The 13-year-old scholarship program serves more than 68,000 students this year, two-thirds of them black or Hispanic. It’s administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.


Rubio: Attack on school choice in FL should concern parents everywhere

From an op-ed on today authored by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio:

Sen. Rubio

Sen. Rubio

Last year in my home state of Florida, over 40% of children educated with taxpayer funds didn’t attend their zoned public school. They attended district run magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools and dual enrollment programs with colleges. This customization has enabled Florida to have great achievement gains for its lower-income and minority children over the last decade.

For 13 years, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program has played a critical role in this progress. The program provides tax credits to companies that donate to scholarship-granting organizations. It’s been so successful in Florida that I used it as a model for federal legislation I’ve introduced.

Today roughly 68,000 low-income parents use the program to send their child to a school that better fits his or her unique learning needs. Test scores show that these children were the lowest performers in their public schools when they left but now see learning gains equal to children of all incomes.

Incredibly, in spite of this clear success, the Florida teachers union and the Florida School Boards Association filed suit in August to shut down the program. 

Should the suit succeed, these 68,000 needy children – 70% of which are either African-American, or of Hispanic or Haitian descent – will be evicted from their chosen schools. Further, hundreds of private schools in Florida serving minority children will be forced to close their doors.

Although this is happening in Florida, it should concern all parents across the entire country who want and deserve the freedom and opportunity to give their kids better education options.

Full op-ed here.