Education choice advocate voices reverberate day after Gardiner Scholarship rally

Lisa Buie

Hundreds of parents, students and educators rallied for expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship program Tuesday at the State Capitol. PHOTO: Colin Hackley

TALLAHASSEE — A rally to celebrate the Gardiner Scholarship program Tuesday brought hundreds of families and educators to the Capitol. Their mission: Show their gratitude for a program that provides educational choice to students with unique abilities and encourage lawmakers to increase funding so more children have access to educational opportunities.

Those who attended put their thoughts on posters, completing the prompt, “Opportunity Gives Me ____.”

Among rally attendees were scores of students who came to show their support and represent their schools. PHOTO: Colin Hackley

Responses were as individualized as the education experiences made possible by the Gardiner Scholarship.

Hope. Love and peace. My teacher. A fighting chance.

Among parents who attended the rally was Katie Swingle, whose oldest son, Gregory, 11, was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Thanks to a Gardiner Scholarship, he is thriving at St. Joseph Catholic School in Winter Haven. The sixth-grader has earned high academic honors and was named most improved student of the year. 

“It has changed my life and changed my child’s life,” said Swingle, who traveled more than 275 miles to petition lawmakers. “That’s why Florida needs to increase funding to make the Gardiner Scholarship available to more families. They deserve the hope and the peace of mind that the scholarship provides, which are just as valuable as the schooling, educational materials, and therapies it subsidizes.”

Maylen Puentes, principal at Ridge Manor Christian Academy, brought a busload of 96 people from Hernando County, 234 miles from the Capitol. Sixteen of her 117 students attend the K-12 school on Gardiner scholarships.

“We have a lot of siblings who have been on a wait list, and it’s a nightmare,” Puentes said. “The wait list kills my families.”

Raquel Baldwin, principal at Baldwin Academy in Fort Lauderdale, traveled with 32 others on a charter bus more than 450 miles – about seven hours – to make sure decisionmakers heard her voice.

“There’s strength in numbers, said Baldwin, who left Broward County at 1 a.m. Tuesday. Of her 120 students, five participate in the Gardiner Scholarship program. She would like to help more families.

“I think it’s important to show our lawmakers the need for the funding that has opened up thus far and to show the need for expansion,” Baldwin said. “I think it’s important for them to realize there are real people and real lives being impacted.”

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