Parents unite to learn about, advocate for educational choice

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school choice
Close to 500 advocates from across the state gather at the Florida Parent Network Annual Conference and Summit in Orlando held in Orlando March 2 to learn more about educational options.

Most national conferences dedicated to educational choice in this country are focused on lawmakers and policy wonks.

I love good debates over accountability measures with people who find white papers exciting as much as the next person. But I often find myself in fancy hotels, surrounded by hundreds of well-meaning think tankers, and wonder out loud, “Where are the parents?”

Parents are the foundation of this movement, and yet they’re often absent from much of the discussion.

I’d like to change that.

This past weekend, my organization held its first annual conference and summit. Almost 500 advocates came from all over the state to celebrate, protect and defend their educational options.

Thanks to them, we have more options in Florida than anywhere in the nation. Yet we still have thousands of children waiting for scholarships, private schools and charter schools. I wanted to bring parents together who’d fight for those children.

Florida Parent Network and Step Up For Students planned the conference to take place a few days before our legislative session began.

To get everyone ready.

Parents attended workshops for media training. They discussed options and schools. They learned how to advocate effectively and spent a lunchtime session writing letters to lawmakers.

There’s more.

Parents and other choice advocates attending the Florida Parent Network Conference and Summit in Orlando March 2 write letters to their legislative representatives, urging them to end scholarship waitlists.

They learned positive parenting techniques and tips for helping kids transition to work, the military or college after high school.

Parents attended sessions dedicated to Florida Tax Credit Scholarships and the Gardiner Scholarship that helped with applications and answered questions.

One of our most popular sessions was Minorities among Majorities, a discussion about inclusion in private schools, with a focus on black children and LGBTQ students.

Another session focused on immigrant students and their unique needs.

Our keynote speaker was Steve Perry, a national firebrand and avid parent power supporter. We were also fortunate to have with us Stanley Murray, crime prevention deputy from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, who talked about bullying prevention.

The best part of the weekend summit for our staff was interacting with families.

Moms telling us about a scholarship that has, quite literally, saved their child’s life. Dads talking about feeling empowered and filled with hope for the first time. Foster parents whose children have never experienced a resort hotel with a pool. Teachers with undocumented students who now know how to help them. Principals sitting and bonding with their parents and teachers, writing to senators, demanding more options for the least among us.

Homeschooling parents advocating for tax credit scholarship parents. Gardiner parents speaking up for charter parents.

All of us in this together.

Step Up’s chairman, John Kirtley, and Step Up’s president, Doug Tuthill, mingled almost anonymously and witnessed parents rising up to defend their right to choose the best school for their kids. A few recognized John and Doug and posed for selfies.

The most popular question I got wasn’t about applications or policies.

Parents wondered how I reconcile my personal political views, as a 30-year left-leaning activist, working in a movement that so many Democrats oppose.

I got this question from parents who also identify with the left.

I talked candidly about the difficulty of agreeing with a candidate on many issues, but not the most important one. The one I work in every day. The one to which I’ve dedicated much of my life. The one I’ve witnessed, firsthand, change the lives and trajectories of hundreds of thousands of children.

Our conference didn’t have easy answers. Brave parents struggling every day don’t take kindly to lawmakers attempting to force kids back into schools that don’t work for them. The vast majority of our parents listened and learned last weekend and are committed to advocating effectively for this legislative session and beyond.

They are ready.

I hope our lawmakers are, too.

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