School choice lawsuit protest

Parents line sidewalks in Vero Beach during a Florida School Boards Association meeting in 2014 to protest a lawsuit against tax credit scholarships.

The Florida Parent Network – the largest advocacy network of its kind and a model for every educational choice program in the United States – is now Florida Voices For Choices. Its new name reflects the tremendous growth and diversity in the education choice movement, but its mission remains the same.

First, some background.

In late 2012, I was hired to organize parents for Step Up For Students. Step Up, which hosts this blog, had been around for more than 10 years and served 70,000 children in Florida every year through the Tax Credit Scholarship program.

That was an exciting time. I traveled the state listening to many parents laud a program that had, in their own words, saved their children’s lives. They valued being able, for the first time, to help direct their children’s education and outlined the results in improved grades, self-esteem, behavior and future opportunities. These parents also had great ideas for how to improve the program, ensuring it worked for more families, and helped us understand the growing need for more options in Florida.

For the past six and a half years, the programs, and the number of involved parents, have continued to grow.

Our advocates include parents who’ve just joined Step Up and are new to educational choice, but they also include parents whose children have graduated. These advocates stay involved to ensure future generations of children benefit from schools that work for them.

We’ve welcomed grandparents, foster parents and caregivers into the fold, empowering all to get involved and advocate for their children and themselves.

These aren’t just tax credit scholarship recipients anymore. We now serve parents who choose Gardiner, Hope, and Family Empowerment scholarships, as well as Reading Scholarship Accounts.

And it’s no longer just me organizing around the state. We have seven professional organizers helping to empower advocates from Key West to Pensacola, and everywhere in between.

Not everyone thinks this is a great idea.

As we grow, defenders of the status quo get nervous. They threaten to shut us down almost every year.

Lawsuits have been filed and bills introduced, all designed to limit options and force our parents back into district schools. Candidates run for office and blatantly threaten programs that serve the neediest among us.

In 2016, Step Up formed the Florida Parent Network to officially help moms and dads who want to fight for their right to choose the best schools for their kids. In 2017, we expanded FPN to include parents who make choices other than scholarships: charters, magnets, virtual and home schools.

In other states, these factions are divided against each other. In Florida, we are a united army.

Here are some of the ways our advocates have made their voices heard throughout Florida over the past six years:

  • After our #dropthesuit campaign and appearances at school board meetings throughout 2014, the Florida School Boards Association dropped out of a lawsuit to end the Tax Credit Scholarship program.
  • We targeted the PTA through a similar social media campaign in 2015-16, and within months, the organization dropped from the same lawsuit.
  • Over 10,000 advocates marched in Tallahassee in 2016 to support the scholarship program and protest the lawsuit against us. It remains the largest march in Florida’s history.
  • Starting with the 2014 legislative session, our advocates have reached out to lawmakers in support of legislation that helps children get off waiting lists and into great schools.
  • We’ve registered hundreds of parents to vote.
  • By law, we can’t tell anyone who to vote for, but we can tell our advocates which candidates support their interests and which do not. Then we encourage our advocates to get out and vote. They are proving to be an important bloc who’ve made a huge difference in the last two gubernatorial elections alone, not to mention dozens of local school board races and other contests across the state.

Florida Parent Network moms and dads have grown into hundreds of thousands of parent power activists, and we’ve been increasingly aware that many of them aren’t parents at all.

We represent and mobilize faith and school leaders, teachers, students, alumni and community partners. These are advocates of all ages and backgrounds who firmly believe children should be educated based on how they learn rather than where they live. They make phone calls. They meet with lawmakers. They write op-eds. They march in the streets and shout on social media.

They won’t let up.

Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. Therefore, we are proud to announce that Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices for Choices. The best way to acknowledge the unending support of all these folks is to include them in our name.

If you believe in this movement, text FVFC to 52886. Florida’s next legislative session starts in January, and 2020 is an election year. Join us. And get ready.

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