Live updates: Thousands rally for school choice in Florida’s capital

James E. Sampson

Students from James E. Sampson Memorial School in Fort Pierce get ready to rally.

Thousands of parents, students, educators and activists are expected to rally for school choice today in Florida’s capital.

They plan to support the state’s tax credit scholarships, which help some 78,000 low-income students attend K-12 private schools, and denounce the lawsuit challenging the program. According to multiple media reports, state capitol police say they’re preparing for crowds of up to 10,000. We’ll be providing continuous updates below. See our developing story here.

Update (1:08 p.m.) The statewide teachers union has responded to the rally with a statement saying it will not back down from its lawsuit. Also, here’s coverage from the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, the Orlando Sentinel and Sunshine State News.

Update (12:30 p.m.): Martin Luther King, III addressed the rally with a statement of purpose.

“Over 10,000 children and families have journeyed to your state capital here in Tallahassee to really say, not just to the union, but to say to any and everyone that is listening: Drop the suit,” he said.

He added: “No one is saying that public education should not be funded. What we are saying is families and kids need options. One option will not work.”

After singing “We Shall Overcome,” the crowd is starting to disperse.

Thousands march in Tallahassee.

Thousands march in Tallahassee.

Update (11:38 a.m.) Bishop Victor Curry, an influential South Florida pastor, called the lawsuit by the statewide teachers’ union and other groups “misguided.”

Noting the Florida Education Association has recognized his advocacy for public education, he said a lower-court judge threw out the legal challenge in part because the union could not show scholarships  hurt public schools.

“The tax credit scholarship, which is now 15 years old, is an equalizer,” he told the audience. In a state that provides multiple school options to families, he wondered why a scholarship program for low-income parents was under threat.

“Maybe they think we’re an easy target,” he said.

Update (11:20 a.m.) Supporters have marched to a massive rally near the Florida State Capitol Building.

Martin Luther King, III joins scholarship supporters before a march near the Florida State Capitol.

Martin Luther King III joins scholarship supporters before a march near the Florida State Capitol.

Update (10:31): Thousands of supporters have arrived, and Martin Luther King III is here.

Latrisha Williams quickly asked for a photo opp with her family.

“I think it’s inspirational that he is speaking today,” said the Bunnell mom who brought her four children to the rally. “It shows our kids that they matter, this scholarship matters and our kids matter.”

All four of her children receive the scholarship to attend First Baptist Christian Academy of Palm Coast. Two buses with about 40 families and school administrators traveled to Tallahassee early this morning to participate.

“I am a parent and advocate for choice,” Williams said. “I feel like choice matters.”

Update (9:41 a.m): Sally Noel and her son, Jannai Noel-Smith, 9, boarded the bus to Tallahassee at 12:30 am this morning at their school, West Palm Beach Junior Academy. They arrived at 8 am.

“I don’t think I slept,” Noel said between leading cheers and chants to support the scholarship.

Noel came to help convince the teachers’ union to drop the suit.

“A lot of kids depend on this scholarship, she said. “If their scholarship was taken away from them, a lot of kids will be forced to go to schools we don’t really want them in. We just want choices. We want choices.”

About 43 students at the school use the scholarship, Principal Glenn Timmons said.

“The children are benefiting from it,” he said. “The parents are happy because they have a choice and they see their children’s lives transformed. And that’s always good.”

Update (9:06 a.m.): When his family moved from Palm Beach Gardens last year, 15-year-old Joey Tenore left his public school for Golden Rule Academy in Fort Pierce.

rally students

Students from West Palm Beach Junior Academy arrive in Tallahassee.

“It was an adjustment going from a public school with 2,000 students to a private school with 250 students,” the ninth-grader said.

Joey came to today’s rally because he wants to support his new school and the program that gives him the opportunity to get a better education.

“There are a lot if great people here who wouldn’t be here without the scholarship – including me,” said Joey, who serves on the student government council for his class.

Golden Rule students, parents and administrators boarded their bus at 11 p.m. Monday, hitting the road at 1 a.m. this morning to make the rally.

Worshipers House of Prayer

Students from Miami’s Worshipers House off Prayer Academy arrive in Tallahassee.

Principal Frederick Williams said about three-quarters of his schools 207 students use tax credit scholarships.

“It has been good to us,” he said. “It’s allowed us to pull in families we wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. We literally bus kids from county line to county line.”

Golden Rule has also opened a second campus to accommodate the growth, Williams said.

Update (8:40 a.m.): The first buses, from Miami’s Worshipers House of Prayer, arrived at 7:35 a.m.

This morning, temperatures were a very un-Miami-like 34 degrees. More than 200 buses from around the state are expected to arrive at the Leon County Civic Center.

Original post

Thousands of parents, students, educators and activists are expected to rally for school choice today in Florida’s capital.

They plan to support the state’s tax credit scholarships, which help some 78,000 low-income students attend private schools, and denounce the lawsuit challenging the program. According to multiple media reports, state capitol police say they’re preparing for crowds of up to 10,000.

Martin Luther King, III, who is scheduled to headline the rally, helped frame the event in an interview with Politico Florida.

King has been a national advocate for tax-credit scholarships since the late 1990s. But he was compelled to join the fight in Florida because he has worked with religious leaders in the state, he said.

He stressed that the debate shouldn’t be political.

He identifies as a Democrat but sometimes agrees with Republicans on certain issues, he said. While Republicans championed Florida’s voucher programs, Democrats have supported similar policies elsewhere. King specifically referenced a legislative fight over tax-credit scholarships in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been a proponent.

“It is partisan, but it shouldn’t be. That’s part of the problem,” he said. “According to who brings an issue to the table, people will get up and support it. It shouldn’t be based on that. It should be based on whether the kids are performing or not.”

Bishop Victor Curry, an influential South Florida pastor scheduled to speak at the rally, described the broader context in Miami Herald guest column.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, now 15 years old, is making a difference in the lives of these children, and you need not take my word for it. The data tells the story. More than two-thirds are black or Hispanic, more than half are from single-parent households, and the average household income is only 7 percent above the poverty line. These students were often the worst performers in the public schools they left behind. However, for seven consecutive years, standardized test scores show they are as whole achieving the same academic gains as students of all incomes across the nation. What would possibly cause the Florida Education Association, our state’s main teacher union, to ask a court to shut down this program?

The union and other groups filed the lawsuit in 2014. Last year, it was thrown out by a Tallahassee judge, but that ruling has since been appealed.

Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the scholarships.

This post will be updated continuously with quotes, tweets and news that emerges throughout the day, with new information at the top. Please check back often. See more coverage from Sunshine State News, Florida Public Radio, Saint Petersblog, The Buzz, News4Jax.

Sherri Ackerman and Patrick Gibbons contributed photos and reporting.

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