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FL teacher/union member: Lawsuit wrong against school choice program

thanks_teacherA Florida public school teacher and teachers union member is speaking out against the lawsuit that threatens to dismantle the nation’s largest private school choice program – and take away the scholarship that is benefitting one of her children.

In an op-ed in today’s Miami Herald, Miami teacher and union steward Marlene Desdunes describes the lawsuit against Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which is serving about 69,000 low-income students this year, as spiteful and “antithetical to our values” as teachers. She writes:

How could we, in the name of teaching, uproot these children from schools that are working for them? No one asked me whether my $837 in annual union dues could be used to try to throw my daughter out of St. Mary’s, and this court fight is turning school and union leaders whom I admire into politicians that I hardly recognize.

In Miami-Dade, more than 18,000 students use the scholarship, and yet when some of the parents showed up at a recent School Board meeting to protest the lawsuit, the board voted not to even hear what they had to say. That’s a degree of callous indifference to poor parents of color that I don’t ever remember seeing from the School Board. Do children in our community not matter unless they attend a district-operated school?

Desdunes’s op-ed notes she is the mother of three students – one who attends a Miami-Dade district school, another who attends a private school with help from a tax credit scholarship, and a third who attends a private with help from a McKay scholarship for students with disabilities. She is also among 15 parents who were granted intervenor status earlier this month to help defend the program against the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups who filed suit against it Aug. 28. The program is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Desdunes isn’t the only public school teacher making her opposition known. Continue Reading →


Raoul Cantero on the legal landscape for school choice scholarships

Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero: "While I disagreed with the result of Bush v. Holmes, fortunately that decision does not dictate that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is unconstitutional. A key reason is that a tax credit scholarship is legally distinct from a directly appropriated scholarship."

Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero: “While I disagreed with the result of Bush v. Holmes, fortunately that decision does not dictate that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is unconstitutional. A key reason is that a tax credit scholarship is legally distinct from a directly appropriated scholarship.” (Photo credit: Johana Sanchez)

The Florida Supreme Court overturned the state’s first K-12 voucher program in 2006, but that decision “does not and should not apply” to the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which is now under legal attack by the Florida teachers union and Florida School Boards Association, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero said last week.

In a keynote address to the Hispanic Coalition for Reform and Educational Options, Cantero noted important distinctions between vouchers and tax credit scholarships, and offered wide-ranging views on the legal landscape for such programs. Cantero was a dissenter to the majority decision in Bush v. Holmes, but we think his views are worth considering no matter where you stand on school choice.

The former justice is helping to represent 15 scholarship parents who have intervened to defend the scholarship program, with the costs paid for by the Alliance for School Choice. As always, we note the scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. Here are Cantero’s prepared remarks in full:

Good afternoon. I am so honored to be here at the HCREO National Summit. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. Making sure all of our children have the opportunity to succeed, particularly those children of modest means, has always been important to me. Providing educational opportunities for all children in our community, not just those in living in the right zip code, is the proven way to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in life. I appreciate all that HCREO does on this front, for I believe access to meaningful educational opportunities is one of the civil rights struggles of our generation.

Here in Florida, as part of the legal team defending the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from constitutional challenge, I have the privilege to play a small part in furthering the opportunities for educational choice for the neediest members of our Hispanic community. I know many of you are familiar with this scholarship program, but for those of you who are not, let me give a short description.

The Florida Legislature created the tax credit scholarship program for low income children in 2001. Under this program, private companies may donate funds to a non-profit scholarship funding organization. The company receives up to a 100 percent tax credit for their donation. The non-profit organization awards scholarships to low-income children, and they use the scholarships to pay for tuition at the private school of their parents’ choice. About 1,500 private schools in Florida accept scholarship students under this program, and there are now roughly 70,000 children using this program statewide, with over 400,000 total scholarships awarded since 2001.

The average household income of the scholarship families is about $24,000. And roughly 75 percent of the students are minorities. 40 percent are Hispanic. Studies of test scores show that the students entering the program are the worst performers in their public schools, but improve their overall educational performance in their new environments. And the program even improves the academic performance of the regular public schools.

Now, note this crucial aspect of the program: the scholarship money goes from the participating private company, to the non-profit, and then to the school at the parent’s direction. The money donated for scholarships never makes it into the state Treasury and is never appropriated by the Legislature, any more than any other charitable contribution by a private corporation or an individual that results in a tax credit or deduction. Continue Reading →


Another Florida school board member backs tax credit scholarships



Yet another member of a Florida school board is denouncing the lawsuit that the Florida schools boards association and others filed to kill the nation’s largest private school choice program.

In an op-ed published Monday by the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler said losing the state’s tax credit scholarship program “would be a tragedy.”

“The more educational options there are, the more opportunity there is for parents to find the one that works for their child,” Ziegler wrote. “We all know education starts at home. But when you take away the power of parents to choose what is best for their children, you erode their will to engage. That is bad for every part of our community. We must empower our families. Choice empowers.”

The 13-year-old scholarship program is serving nearly 70,000 low-income students around the state this year. It’s administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

Ziegler is the fourth sitting member of a Florida school board to write a newspaper commentary panning the suit. She said she reached out to many scholarship parents after the lawsuit was filed in August and “was moved by many of their stories and what the opportunities provided by the scholarship program had meant to them.”

“So many of the family members I spoke with shared stories about how this scholarship program gave them hope that their children would have opportunities beyond what they had,” she continued. “It empowered them to know that they, as the parents, were in charge of the future of their children. They were no longer helpless. This is critical, because neither I nor my colleagues know what is best for every child. Parents do.”

Read the full op-ed here.


Happy Thanksgiving!

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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.