Editor’s note: Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, was one of eight Democrats who joined a Republican majority Monday to approve HB 7067. A nearly two-hour emotional debate on the bill, which is aimed at aligning policies between the new Family Empowerment Scholarship and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and increasing allowed enrollment growth in the former, saw representatives on both sides of the issue sharing personal stories, including Valdes, who advocated for under-served students during her tenure on the Hillsborough County School Board. Her efforts led the district to allow students to take multiple competency tests to increase their chances of earning a diploma. Here is what Valdes had to say at Monday’s hearing.

The only thing I can share with you is being born first-generation of Cuban immigrants in New York City, we went to a public school. We moved to Miami shortly thereafter, and later on as an adult, I found out why. Things weren’t going very well in the public schools in New York City. Mom and Dad wanted something better for me. When we moved to Miami, I went to a small private school. My parents weren’t wealthy at all. I remember struggling. They didn’t talk about it.

My mom was widowed when I was 10 going on 11. My mom couldn’t afford any longer to provide the education that they thought would be fit for me and that was at that small private school. It was a community school. It was something that was a good thing for kids. We didn’t have this option when I was growing up. When we moved to Tampa shortly thereafter my dad’s passing, I did go into public school and I have to say I wear my high school alma mater lanyard for a reason. I want the students back home to know that they can do this, that they can reach whatever potential that they choose with the help of their teachers and their administration and of course with hard work.

I honor them. I honor our public school teachers. I honor the work they do. I love public schools. No doubt about that. And I also know that in my school district there are many students, that like my parents, needed and wanted a choice because things weren’t going right in their traditional public schools. And until we become open and friendlier in our schools, until we begin to understand some of the cultural challenges that our students face, whether they’re poor, whether they’re immigrants, whether they were born here, whatever their case may be, we have to be able to open our hearts to a single mom’s decision of where to put and place their child in a school.

Not everyone has a family that, we talked about that before on the parental rights bill, things of that nature, not everyone has a family with that foundation that most of grew up with. So, when I’m seeing how many single moms and single dads we have in today’s society …

My friends, we’re the party of choice. We’re the party of choice. How can we deny the single parent the choice of where to educate their child? This is extremely important for the successes of our children. And yes, we do have the majority of parents that do choose public schools, and that’s a great choice. It really is. There’s a lot of opportunity. But when you look at the data as Rep. Newton has so eloquently shared with us so many different times about that school to prison pipeline, after several of us are visiting prisons in our state and talking to our kids that are in there behind those bars, and one in specific told me, and it broke my heart, because he said to me, ‘I let you down, Ms. Valdes.’

I didn’t know I was going to see this kid. He actually put signs out when I was running for school board. He and his family. I had no idea. But I would go talk to my kids in my schools and share this same conversation. They have the opportunity with hard work and dedication to be able to reach these heights. And because of poverty, he made the wrong choice, got caught and was one that was incarcerated such as Rep. Newton … When he looked at me and he was desperately knocking on that little window in that cage, ‘Ms. V., Ms. V.,’ I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, who knows me in here?’ I looked at this young man and a tear came down and he said, ‘I’m sorry I let you down.’

It reminded me of what we’re doing here today. We have to give our children the opportunity that when things aren’t working out, find a way of being able to make it work for that child. I know that our guidance counsellors are overworked. I know the social workers, we need more of them, but by the same token, the system failed this young man. I can’t help him behind bars. All I can do is give him encouraging words in hopes that he behaves and does well so that maybe we can pass later on a 65 percent law that instead of having students or kids or prisoners meet their 85 percent mandatory that children like these who have been incarcerated since a very young age would have a chance at a second chance.

So, with that, thank you for the bill. I am supportive of this bill because every child matters. Our public schools do the best they can, and I know their hearts are in  the right places, but we have to be really, really diligent in making sure that all of our students are served. If you look at the Department of Education’s website, there is an icon where you can go and see how much is invested in your public schools per student. You will be surprised at what you will see and how much of all the different funding sources, how much each student is invested in or worth in that particular school.

Colleagues, I get it. I understand. We may agree to disagree on this one. And it’s not an anti-teacher, it’s not an anti-union, it’s not an anti-anything. On the contrary. It’s a for and a pro children bill. So with that, thank you, and I will be voting up on this bill, and I hope that my colleagues, please, look deep into your heart and think about those kids in your community that take advantage of this. In Hillsborough County, in my voting district alone, there’s over 1,000 children who take advantage of this program that otherwise I don’t know where they would be. Maybe they’ll be like little Kaia. Or like that little 7-year-old that just got arrested in a Pinellas public school, and it wasn’t a charter school, it was a public school. So, with that, thank you, Madame Chair.

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