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Civil rights leader draws connection between Selma & FL school choice battle

Florida civil right leader H.K. Matthews, who marched at Selma, says both that historic march and the current fight over school choice are about empowerment.

Florida civil right leader H.K. Matthews, who marched at Selma, says both that historic march and the current fight over school choice are about empowerment.

The historic march at Selma in 1965 and the current battle over school choice in Florida have a lot in common, writes Florida civil rights icon H.K. Matthews in an op-ed in today’s Fort Myers News Press.

Matthews participated in the Selma march, which is again the focus of national discussion thanks to a powerful new movie. He also helped lead the 2010 march on Tallahassee that drew nearly 6,000 people in support of tax credit scholarships for low-income children.

Watching the movie revived painful memories, Matthews writes. But it wasn’t the first time he had flashbacks to that pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, pointing specifically to the 2010 rally in Florida.

“Incredibly, nearly 6,000 people showed up — that’s roughly 10 times the number who marched across that Selma bridge,” he writes. “Over 1,000 people slept on buses overnight to be there. They came to celebrate their own empowerment — the ability to choose the best school for their children.”

Rev. Matthews participated in both the first Selma march and the 2010 march in Tallahassee that drew nearly 6,000 in support of parental choice. He is in the front row on the left, walking with the cane.

Rev. Matthews participated in both the first Selma march and the 2010 march in Tallahassee that drew nearly 6,000 in support of parental choice. He is in the front row on the left, walking with the cane.

The 2010 march preceded passage of a bill, later signed by then Gov. Charlie Crist, that expanded the scholarship program. Last August, the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association and other groups filed suit to end the program, which is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. A key hearing in the case is set for Feb. 9.

“When I heard about the lawsuit, I had another flashback to the old movement,” Matthews writes in the op-ed. “The parallels were striking to me. Here were citizens demanding empowerment. A march symbolized that demand. And here were powerful groups trying to deny it.

“I suppose that this lawsuit will eventually end up in the Florida Supreme Court. One thing I’m fairly sure of: If nearly 6,000 people showed up just to demonstrate that they supported the program, how many will come if the most important thing to them — their right to choose the best school for their children — is threatened to be taken away?”

Read the full op-ed here.

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2

May the seeds of parental choice continue to bear fruit in 2015.

In the meantime, the final post in our wish list series runs tomorrow. Thanks to all 10 guest bloggers who took time out to contribute such strong reads for the holidays. We are grateful.

Our regular publication schedule resumes Monday. See you then!

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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 →

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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 →

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Another Florida school board member backs tax credit scholarships

Ziegler

Ziegler

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.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

We hope you have a wonderful and happy Thanksgiving with your friends and family. We will be back first thing Monday. See you then!

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 →

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