The parents and students came from magnet schools, career academies, virtual schools, charter schools, home schools and private schools that accept vouchers and tax credit scholarships.
Among their messages: Options matter.
“If your child was in the same situation and he’s not progressing, you have to do what you have to do,” said Eboni Tucker-Smith, who used a McKay voucher to put her son Daquan in an Orlando private school after he struggled in public school. “Now he’s doing great. He started opening up, singing. It brought tears to me.”
“It’s working,” she continued about school choice. “Leave it alone.”
No, don’t leave it alone, said Regina Davis, who has three children in Miami-Dade magnet schools. Expand it.
“I don’t want to be forced to put my child anywhere,” said Regina Davis, who boarded a bus at 3 a.m. to make the rally. “If we can’t get the school system to provide a high-standard education, we’re going to do whatever it takes.”
In less than a generation, school choice in Florida has quietly gone mainstream, with 43 percent of students now attending a school other than their neighborhood school. This year alone, more than 200,000 parents chose magnet schools, at least 150,000 chose career academies, 200,000 chose charters, and 50,000 chose tax-credit scholarships to send their kids to private schools.
Many at the rally said they appreciated the growing list of options, but some said there still weren’t enough.
Astrid Bailey’s family moved from Georgia to a D-rated school zone in Pasco County. Not good enough. Under No Child Left Behind rules, her kids were able to transfer into a C school. Still not good enough. She applied to get them into a high-performing charter school, but didn’t win the lottery.
“We said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Home-schooling is working out well. And Bailey said her family is fortunate to have the time and resources to do it. But “we’d love the option to go to a good school.”
Politicians from both parties addressed the rally goers, many of whom wore yellow “School Choice Day” T-shirts.
Gov. Rick Scott said choice and competition will make schools better. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said it amazed him that in a country founded on freedom, people opposed the freedom of parents to choose schools. State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said she would continue to fight for parity in funding for charter schools.
State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, said Florida has good schools of all stripes – traditional, charter, private. “And I think it’s critical that folks in my district and others have many options to pursue their dreams,” he said.
It’s impossible to know the political leanings of the parents in the crowd, but a majority were black – and some were clearly proud Democrats.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life. I’m an Obama supporter,” said Davis, the Miami magnet mom. “But I’m a concerned parent first. If that makes me conservative, so be it.”
Wednesday’s rally was coordinated by Florida Alliance for Choices in Education and the Florida chapter of the National Coalition for Public School Options. FACE members include Step Up For Students, which administers the state’s tax credit scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.
The rally comes as the Legislature hits the mid point in this year’s session. More than 30 school choice bills are under consideration.
After the rally, yellow shirts swarmed the Capitol, looking for lawmakers.
On the 22nd floor, Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, met with more than a dozen students from Mt. Sinai Junior Academy. She mentioned the rally chants from the courtyard below.
“I could hear you on the 14th floor,” she told them. And that’s a good thing, she continued.
“You can’t be shy when you come to Tallahassee.”