Advocate Voices

Commentary: Special education is more complex than many realize

Despite being told her son, Brandon, would never learn to read, Donna Berman persisted in her quest to find an appropriate education setting for him where he could thrive. Brandon died Sept. 10, 2017, at the age of 19.

Editor’s note: The Orlando Sentinel recently published commentary arguing that private schools that accept vouchers discriminate against children with special needs. A Volusia County parent of a special needs child begs to differ. Donna Berman’s son, Brandon, who had autism and a brain tumor as well as muscular dystrophy and seizures, was denied admission to a local public school. Berman tells Brandon’s story in a response to the Sentinel, published Thursday, noting that until Brandon received a Gardiner Scholarship to attend a private school, he was “a space-age kid stuck in a stone-age system.”

Special education is a complex topic, dealing with dozens of laws, hundreds of unique needs and thousands of children across the state. It’s a topic that deserves better and deeper discussion than recently presented.

A recent column by Scott Maxwell (“Voucher schools can reject kids with disabilities,” Aug. 7) argued that private schools can discriminate against children with disabilities. However, individual public schools can also reject students with disabilities. I know this from personal experience. Worse still, the column was published while Volusia County public schools are under investigation by the Justice Department for discriminating against students with autism.

Read more here.

To read more about Brandon, click here.


Why one Democratic state lawmaker voted for educational choice

State Rep. Wengay Newton, front row, right, with education choice advocates, families and children at a meeting Aug. 14 at the St. Petersburg College Midtown Center

At a Town Hall in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, State Rep. Wengay Newton kept it real.

More than a dozen advocates and constituents who live in or attend schools in his St. Petersburg district spent their evening hearing from one of the six Democrats who voted this spring in support of SB 7070, a bill creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES).

The bill is now law and provides state-funded scholarships to low-income and working-class families who want their children to attend a K-12 private school. Many families who are being awarded the new scholarship are from his district. Statewide, the new program is set to serve up to 18,000 students and to help reduce the waiting list for a similar program, the 18-year-old Tax Credit Scholarship, that is serving 100,000 students through tax-credited corporate contributions.

While speaking to the audience that gathered at the St. Petersburg College Midtown Center, Newton shared why he is so passionate about equal opportunity.

He began with his life story. Newton grew up in a single-parent household in the very district he now represents. He became a teen father and worked hard to provide for his family while completing school.  

The countless hours he worked and studied paid off, and he soon found himself working in the real world – hungry for more of what life could offer.

His one-way ticket toward that destination was a quality education. It is now what drives his passion as a state representative.

Newton stressed the importance of preschoolers receiving fundamental preparation at home. Earlier this year, his bill, HB 2161, Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), led to a $3.9 million appropriation for the program to help strengthen the parent’s role as the child’s first teacher.

Newton also talked passionately about his fear of the school-to-prison pipeline. To him, it is a real concern.

He provided for the audience some alarming statistics from a report shared by the State Department of Juvenile Justice 2017-18 report data. It cites an alarming number of school-related arrests for children of color in the Tampa Bay region – 603 in Hillsborough, 458 in Pinellas, 206 in Manatee and 91 in Sarasota counties.

Another report also highlighted what it sees as race-related disparities in schools. According to the ACLU, the industry recommends 250 students per school counselor, but the actual ratio in Pinellas is 441. For social workers, the industry recommends 250, but the actual ratio is 849. For psychologists, the recommendation is 500 to 700, but the actual ratio is 1,262. It claims there are dozens of schools that are not providing any of these services.

From that report, Newton asked the crowd to imagine a child with disciplinary problems in a school that is understaffed. He or she might end up with counterproductive discipline like expulsion, suspension and increase the risk of becoming arrested or dropping out of school.

That, he said, creates another child lost to the pipeline.

These are the life experiences, Newton told the audience, that cause him to support any education option that expands opportunity for economically disadvantaged children. He is a strong supporter of traditional neighborhood schools, but says he knows they can’t be everything to every child. The new scholarship he voted to support, he said, creates more options for students to be successful.

Katherine McNickle was one of his constituents in the audience that evening. Her granddaughter attends Mt. Zion Christian Academy in St. Petersburg, and she was grateful for Newton’s vote on the scholarship program.

“It means a lot to me to have Rep. Newton to do this for us,” she said. “My granddaughter has a scholarship and she wouldn’t be able to attend Mt. Zion without it. We are so happy.”

Advocacy groups like Florida Voices For Choices work closely with parents in support of school choice. The group hosts workshops and webinars on topics ranging from the scholarship application process to avoiding the “summer slide.” The group also connects parents from Newton’s district and beyond with resources and other non-profit groups that can better serve parents.

Commentary: Parental choice is an effective form of accountability

In a historic expansion of school choice in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signs into law May 9 a bill creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a new, state-funded voucher program.

Editor’s note: The Gainesville Sun editorial board, in an opinion posted July 28, called for greater oversight for private schools that will receive about $130 million this year from the state budget for a new voucher program. The editorial alleges these private schools lack accountability to ensure academic quality, a highly-trained teacher force and policies that prevent discrimination against students. Executive director of Florida Voices For Choices Catherine Durkin Robinson responded in a column the Sun published Tuesday, arguing that school accountability should be a balance between regulations and family choice.   

In a recent editorial, The Sun equated regulation of education with quality academic outcomes. It ignores the fact that parental choice is an effective form of accountability — and a vital tool to equalizing opportunity.

For too long, district schools had a monopoly on teaching most of the students within their jurisdiction, and parents had no choice but to send their children to whatever school that district assigned. Since parents had no options, the theory went, schools needed tight regulatory and accountability standards. That’s the only way we’d know how they were working.

Those standards showed us that for millions of low-income, minority children, that system was not working.

School accountability should be a balance between regulations and family choice. And the evidence suggests Florida’s tax scholarship program has found a good balance. Even with far less funding, the lower-income students using the scholarships are generating better academic results.

To read more, click here.

The fight for education equity continues as new school year begins

McKay Protest picture
Students and parents advocate for school choice scholarships in a 2015 advocacy event in Tallahassee.

As students begin returning to classrooms, I can’t help but notice that some parents are willing to risk it all for their child’s education.

Many are not satisfied with their current learning environment and have taken extreme measures for a chance to have an equal opportunity. Reports across the United States reveal that parents lie, cheat, and find loopholes to beat the system because they want their children to have a better chance than they did.

Recently, the Chicago Tribune reported that some parents are willing to give up their guardianship in order for their college-bound child to qualify for financial aid. A loophole in the system prevented some qualifying low-income families from not receiving their due funding.

A few years back, an Ohio mother lied about her address so her daughters could attend better district schools – and ended up in jail. Another mother, homeless and unemployed in Connecticut, was arrested for enrolling her 5-year-old son at an elementary school he wasn’t zoned to attend.

These parents’ actions highlight that policymakers aren’t doing enough to help public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity.

The fight is not over. And Florida Voices for Choices will help them fight for their children.

Although all children from various socioeconomic backgrounds deserve a quality education, that education will look different for each family – because no one size fits all.

Some families can afford to move into neighborhoods that have A-rated district schools.  Other families may opt to send their kids to charter or magnet schools if they are lucky enough to get accepted.

But many families don’t have the means to send their kids where they want. They may have an opportunity to receive a scholarship or voucher, but countless do not. These parents must fight to send their kid to a learning environment that works best for them.

In Florida, the fight continues to end scholarship waiting lists. Step Up For Students, the state’s largest scholarship funding organization, still has a growing waitlist for the Gardiner Scholarship, a program serving nearly 14,000 children with special needs.

More than 20,000 families applied for the scholarship this year, but there is not enough money allocated for the program in the state budget to fulfill demand.

Those parents need certain therapies for their kids, and many traditional schools don’t offer that. A scholarship could help them cover the cost. For years, they shared with lawmakers their desire to see an increase in funding.

Their fight is not over.

Nearly 18,000 other families will be getting off a waitlist this school year to receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a program that serves low- and middle-income families that might not have been able to afford tuition at private schools.

One of those parents is Mikekisha Turner, a single mom with three children who struggles to make ends meet in Miami. In Mikekisha’s neighborhood, many things aren’t accessible to all. She wants her children to be in a school with happy teachers. Without a good education, she knows her children will struggle in life. That’s why she believes equal opportunity means having the power of choice.

Mikekisha’s fight is not over.

That’s why training parents to advocate for policies that matters to them makes a difference. Advocate parents are more informed about options available to them and may not have to resort to extreme measures like criminal behavior in order to help their kids.

At Step Up For Students, my team’s role is anchored in grassroots mobilization. Florida Voices For Choices strives to expand the coalition of faith leaders, parents, and other advocates in support of school choice. We educate all advocates on policies, laws and threats that directly impact the scholarship programs. We train advocates to testify before legislative committee hearings, write letters to editors in their local newspapers, and participate in educational campaigns. We work together to help all children have a chance to succeed in varying educational environments.


Because we know the fight is not over.

An education choice advocate reflects on benefits of A+ plan


Editor’s note: redefinED continues to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the K-12 reforms launched by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, collectively known as the A+ accountability plan, with this post from Step Up For Students’ executive director for advocacy and civic engagement. In her first-person piece, she recounts how she became aware of the legislation that transformed education throughout the state and how it impacted her family.

Back in 1999, when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature decided to put the A+ Plan into effect — thereby increasing accountability for schools, rewarding them for improved outcomes and creating options for families – I was living in Boston and working on presidential visits and various campaigns for Young Democrats of America.

I knew my former home state was going through some changes, but I didn’t pay much attention.

That changed when my sons were born in 2000 and my husband and I decided, as much as we loved Boston, we would raise our children in the Tampa Bay area, surrounded by family and loved ones. At that point, education in Florida became my primary interest.

We returned to Florida and looked around. The academic landscape had changed from when I was a student in the ‘80s and a young teacher in the ‘90s.

In 1981, I rode a bus for 45 minutes (one way) from a middle class neighborhood in North Tampa to a struggling, low-income area in order to attend Young Junior High (now Young Middle Magnet) for seventh grade.

This was not my family’s choice.

Children of different ethnic backgrounds were bused to Young from all over Hillsborough County. Ours was a truly integrated school, filled with black, white and Hispanic students.

It was also a culture shock.

We all went from a neighborhood elementary school to this strange set of buildings in a part of town regarded as hostile and dangerous. Weird characters wandered on to our campus and routinely had to be escorted away. I remember feeling like the area around the school should have been made safe before bringing in children for schooling.

None of us felt a connection to the school or each other. We couldn’t put on plays or performances in the evening because it was too far a drive for almost everyone’s parents.

It didn’t seem to make much sense.  

I returned to my neighborhood schools for the rest of junior high (eighth and ninth grade back then) and on to high school for 10th-12th. We all knew which schools were good and which were not, but only through word of mouth. Nothing official. And no accountability for the children who suffered through a substandard education.

After graduating from the University of South Florida, I taught at an alternative high school.

Our students were overwhelmingly poor, minority, and male.

They came to our school one of two ways. They were either arrested and the Department of Juvenile Justice sentenced them to our program, or they were expelled, and the school district sent them to us.

Students could learn at their own pace and in a setting that encouraged their thoughtful participation. In the morning they took core academic classes, leaving the afternoon open for a marine-based curriculum. Students learned how to operate a boat or become SCUBA and lifeguard certified.

This was the first time I saw disadvantaged youth thrive and do well. As teachers, we visited each student’s home and talked with their families. We learned about who they were and where they came from, rather than trying to help them simply based on their age, socioeconomic status, and alleged crime.

I was allowed to teach interesting social studies classes, such as Religions of the World and Politics and Government. Local field trips involved taking students to a synagogue, mosque, and church. We had lunch with Hare Krishnas in Ybor City. We also secured grants that funded field trips to Washington, D.C.

Our students saw a whole world outside the one in which they lived. I often wondered if at-risk youth might actually avoid arrest or expulsion if this type of learning environment were offered before it was almost too late.

Ours wasn’t a school of choice, since the students were assigned to it. But it showed me how developing a curriculum based on the needs and interests of the students in my classroom was a step in the right direction.

By the time we returned to Florida and started looking at schools, my kids had a lot more options than I ever did. Thanks to the A+ plan, scholarships to attend private schools were available, and magnet programs were created that expanded students’ knowledge and prepared them for high school and beyond. Advanced Placement classes and dual enrollment got them ready for college. Virtual classes allowed for flexible schedules and off-site learning activities.

When my children were ready for preschool, I also returned to the classroom and had more options as well.

Charters and magnet programs were able to do what busing never accomplished – probably because parents respond better when presented with choices, rather than something compulsory. I noticed this in other areas, too. Parents who bitterly complained about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test never showed a resistance to AP testing. Both were rigorous and challenging, but only one was seen as a choice.

I am dismayed when my friends on the left act as if there haven’t been any improvements these last twenty years. There is still work to be done — too many children are still trapped in substandard learning environments.  

But there is no denying the improvements that have benefited all of us. Maneuvering my children through the educational system was eye-opening, in more ways than one. Any parent who has options owes a debt of gratitude to Gov. Bush and the lawmakers who created this system of choice and accountability.


Families, advocates rally for education choice at BOE meeting


Advocates for school choice and protesters who want more money spent on public schools assembled at the Florida Board of Education meeting Wednesday at Polk State College in Lakeland.

More than a dozen parents and students representing Florida Voices for Choices gathered outside the entrance to the college’s technology building wearing bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Parent Power” and holding signs that read “Empower More Parents With Choice” and “Choice Helps Public Schools.” They countered a protest organized by groups that argue the state is “starving public schools” of money and have demanded a “moratorium on vouchers and charter expansion.”  

Five choice advocates spoke before the board and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. They included Ashley Elliott, a Lakeland native and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship alumnus. Elliott gave a moving account of her life – born drug-addicted to a single mother, adopted by her grandmother who faced health problems while living in poverty.

“By all rights I shouldn’t be here today,” she said.

Elliott said that after struggling in one public school she transferred to another, where she was bullied for wearing the same “hand-me-down clothes” twice in the same week. She got into fights with other students, skipped class, and saw her grades decline to D’s and F’s.

“Not even I believed in myself anymore,” she said “I was destined to become a high school dropout, a disappointment, or worse. Just another sad statistic.”

It was then that a teacher told her about the tax credit scholarship, which allowed her to afford to attend Victory Christian Academy, a private school in Lakeland, where she thrived. She graduated with a 3.3 GPA, and is currently in her second year at Valencia College in Orlando. She said she plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida next spring and major in history.

“None of this would be possible without school choice,” she said. “Just as we have choices in what we eat or our career path, we need a choice in our education. Education is a human right on which our futures depend.”

New parent advocacy organization is ‘enemy of average’


There’s a new kid on the block.

yes. every kid.

At the recent Stand Together summit in Colorado Springs, a new education organization was announced. yes. every kid. will represent families, teachers and anyone else who believes that students deserve personalized learning and teachers require freedom and autonomy to achieve that.

“It’s time to say yes to families, yes to educators, yes to communities, and – yes, every kid should have the opportunity reach their full potential,” said Meredith Olson, the organization’s chairman. “We are the enemy of average, and we will stand with anyone who’s ready to help the next generation rise by ensuring every kid receives an education that respects their individuality and ensures educators have the freedom to innovate and reach their students.”

Olson explained that she wants her organization to consider all the options that prevent children from learning.

yes. every kid. stands for the wholesale re-imagination of education where the student is at the center,” she said. “Together, we stand for possibility and opportunity to ensure all students rise by receiving a customized education designed to meet their needs.”

This is a tax-exempt 501(c)4 organization, which allows it a bit more freedom to get involved politically.

It’s different in other ways, too.

“We intend to put all policy options on the table to break the barriers that prevent educators and families from working together to develop the potential of every kid,” said Matt Frendewey, spokesman for the group. “We will work on reforming the school finance system, moving away from standardized testing, advancing diverse policy solutions to mirror the diversity of students, and empowering educators to have more freedom to excel in the vitally important career they have chosen.”

As part of their announcement, yes. every kid. released a poll conducted by YouGov, which educators and the public their thoughts on K-12 education in this country.

Some highlights:

·       Forty-five percent of the public and 48 percent of teachers believe education has gotten worse over the last five years. Only 14 percent of the public, compared with 24 percent of teachers, believe it’s gotten better.

·       Seventy-three percent of the public, and 86 percent of educators, believe K-12 schools should expose students to a variety of subjects so they can find their own passion and educational path, as opposed to 14 percent of the public and 13 percent of teachers who believe schools should focus solely on preparing students for college.

·       Not surprisingly, 56 percent of teachers believe school administrators should have more flexibility when structuring their schools, with only 39 percent of the public favoring the same.

·       A whopping 69 percent of the educators polled believe teachers should help students excel at subjects that matter most to them, rather than force students to follow a path laid out for them; 55 percent of the general public agrees.

yes. every kid. doesn’t have any parents parent organizers on its board, but it’s just getting started. It’s adding field staff and will work with local partners, according to Frendewey, and focus on policies that have local support.

Customization will pave the way to progress by meeting the educational needs of students rather than artificially limiting solutions. yes. every kid. is right to trust educators taking thoughtful, well-informed risks in innovations that move all kids forward to improved outcomes.

Anyone interested in working with yes. every kid. can visit its website www.yeseverykid.com.

New name, same family-focused mission

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.