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Parent Voices

New name, same family-focused mission

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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.

Reflections of a parent organizer

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Regardless of issue or geographic location, parents often are the best advocates for their children’s educational options.

Florida frequently is viewed as a model for the school choice movement, especially when it comes to parent advocacy. So why is it so hard for other states to replicate the Sunshine State’s methods?

This is the question I’m pondering as I reflect on a recent parent organizer training in Milwaukee hosted by EdChoice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to advance a K-12 education system where all families are free to choose the most appropriate learning environment for their children.

Specifically, I’m wondering: How do we work through all the politics and enact change? What type of messaging do we need to share with parents who feel entitled to have educational options but don’t feel compelled to fight for it?

These are tough questions that don’t have easy answers. But in my opinion, one of the givens is that you need to have some skin in the game.

Anyone who has ever mobilized groups of people will tell you it’s not easy. One strategy that has worked in Florida for Step Up For Students, a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer five scholarships, has been building and maintaining a solid grassroots effort. A tactic connected to that strategy was the creation of a database of parent contacts that can activate parents – on as as-needed basis – in certain geographic areas.

How do we identify those parents and convince them to work with us? That’s a recurring question for many organizers, and one that comes up at almost every organizer training I attend.

I suppose there’s no right or wrong way. It may be best to just reach out to a school and offer to host a presentation during a parent meeting. Hand out fliers during a school sporting event. Partner with other organizations who have a connection to the school to amplify your message.

Sometimes obstacles turn out to be opportunities in disguise when it comes to organizing parents.

Say something negative appears in the media about a school’s academic performance. This can be a chance to rally parents by encouraging them to respond to the story, whether in print or online, by writing letters to the editor or even penning an opinion piece.

It’s amazing the lengths parents will go to when offered a little encouragement and some clear direction.

Clear direction is key when working in the political arena. While a bill working its way through committee can be intimidating to families who are unfamiliar with that arena, those individuals often are perfectly suited to lead a grassroots groundswell. Parents are essential because they are real people with real experiences. They are directly impacted by what is being proposed, and they often are the most passionate speakers in the room when a bill comes to the floor.

Consider arranging for the parents in your network to meet with their local lawmakers and teach them how to speak up – person – during the session. A well-spoken, flesh-and-blood constituent can change hearts and minds. Remember that attending one meeting or committee hearing is not enough. Make it a point to bring your grassroots delegation to as many legislative events as possible. And if a parent is unwilling or unable to speak, at least have that individual in the room to show support.

Our recent experience demonstrates that his or her presence can make a difference.

This past legislative session, much was at stake for nearly 14,000 families on the waitlist for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Dozens of those waitlist families, and dozens more who have been scholarship recipients, traveled to the state capitol to testify. Others attended delegation meetings, and some met one on one with their senators and representatives – those opposed as well as in favor of creating a new scholarship program to ease the waitlist.

Their efforts were not in vain. After a lengthy and contentious hearing that spanned two days, the Florida House sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis a bill creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a new state-funded K-12 scholarship for low-income and working-class students.

The victory for these Florida families exemplifies how having skin in the game is essential for grassroots efforts.

Remember the rebels

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Tracy James, foreground, and her daughter, Khaliah Clanton-Williams, are greeted by principal Maria Mitkevicius and administrator Mary Gaudet at the Montessori School of Pensacola. Khaliah was one of the first students to use Florida’s “first voucher,” the Opportunity Scholarship, in Fall 1999. PHOTO: Michael Spooneybarger

Editor’s note: 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the far-reaching K-12 changes that Gov. Jeb Bush launched in Florida, including creation of the first, modern, statewide private school choice program in America. To highlight those changes, redefinED embarked upon a series of articles that examine Bush’s “education revolution” and how it continues to reverberate. Today’s piece spotlights a mom and daughter who participated in Florida’s historic Opportunity Scholarship.

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Tracy James finished the graveyard shift to find her car a casualty of the “voucher wars” – and her 8-year-old, Khaliah, needing another ride to school.

This was 20 years ago, when this Deep South Navy town became the front in the national battle over school choice. In June 1999, Florida’s new governor, Jeb Bush, had signed into law the Opportunity Scholarship, the first, modern, statewide, K-12 private school voucher in America. Khaliah and 56 other students in Pensacola were the first recipients, and now enmeshed in a political clash drawing global attention.

CNN came. A Japanese film crew showed up. So did a member of British Parliament. All wanted to see the “experiment” a Canadian newspaper said “will shape the future of public education in this state and perhaps across the United States.” Tracy and Khaliah were in the thick of it, with Tracy among the most outspoken of an unconventional cast of characters. The single mom with the self-described rebel streak wouldn’t hide her joy at this opportunity for her only child – and refused to cave to anybody who suggested she was being “bamboozled.”

“If you want something better for your children,” she told one paper, “you would do the same thing.”

Not everybody appreciated her resolve.

Tracy walked out of her shift as a phlebotomist to find her car sabotaged, three tires flat as week-old Coke. She called her dad, who said he could take Khaliah to her new school, one Tracy could not afford without the scholarship. The flats left Tracy shocked and ticked – and more determined.

I guess I need tougher skin, she thought. Because we ain’t going back.

***

Lots of folks know Ruby Bridges. But Khaliah Clanton-Williams? Maybe one day.

The original Opportunity Scholarship students, their parents, and the five private schools that welcomed them have never gotten their due. After an epic legal battle, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the school choice program unconstitutional in 2006, and the decision in Bush v. Holmes seemed to close the chapter. But it didn’t. Many of those whose lives were touched by the scholarship have untold stories, with some still unfolding in ways that attest to the power of that experience.

In one sense, the Opportunity Scholarship was as small-scale as it was short-lived. Students were eligible if their zoned public schools earned two F grades in a 4-year span, and in 1999 only two schools – both in Pensacola – fell into that category. At the same time, most private schools sat it out. Among other restrictions, the law barred them from charging tuition beyond the scholarship amount of $3,400 to $3,800. At its height, the Opportunity Scholarship served 788 students.

And yet, it loomed so large. Florida’s “first voucher” stirred the imagination about what could be with a more pluralistic, parent-driven system of public education. It exposed the festering dissatisfaction many parents had with assigned schools. It enabled and amplified voices that still aren’t heard enough.

Pensacola may be best known for its Blue Angels and sugar-sand beaches. But most of the parents who applied for the school choice scholarships were working-class black women – nursing assistants and bank tellers, cooks and clerks, Head Start workers and homemakers. They had a lot to say about schools in Pensacola’s low-income neighborhoods, and for a few months in 1999, they had the mic.

***

Khaliah’s assigned school was modest red brick, five blocks from her home, named for the district’s first “supervisor of colored schools.” Khaliah would be starting kindergarten, so Tracy stopped to visit. She never got past the front office. “It was a zoo,” she said. “Kids were running around. They were screaming. There was no discipline. There was no structure.”

Nobody with the school acknowledged her, so after a few minutes, Tracy left … for good. She turned to her only option: another district school near her mother’s house, two miles away. Tracy said her mom, a former custodian for the school district, became Khaliah’s guardian so Khaliah could attend. But that school didn’t pan out either.

One day, Tracy watched through a window as kids in Khaliah’s class danced to music blaring from a boom box. She found the teacher in a side office and asked what was going on: “ ‘She said, ‘It’s reading time.’ I said, ‘They’re not reading.’ “ Tracy opened her eyes wide for emphasis.

Khaliah, meanwhile, shy and soft-spoken, was falling behind. “I had a hard time concentrating because it was so loud,” she said. “I’d ask for help and it was like, ‘just a moment.’ But the moment never came.”

Tracy heard about Opportunity Scholarships while working another job as a hotel desk supervisor. Some guests asked her in passing about local schools, and as fate would have it, they were lawyers with the Institute for Justice, the firm that would later help defend the scholarship in court.

Ninety-two students applied for the scholarships, including Khaliah, who had come back to live with Tracy. That exceeded the available seats in the four Catholic schools and one Montessori that opted to participate, so a lottery was held.

Khaliah emerged with a golden ticket.

***

Tracy took her time before deciding on a school. She read up on Catholic schools, talked to friends and co-workers who attended Catholic schools, learned everything she could about Montessori. She was intrigued by the latter – by the mixed-age classrooms, the cultivation of creativity, the curriculum that was so different. In the end, the rebel and her daughter decided they wanted different.

Khaliah Clanton-Williams, left, used an Opportunity Scholarship to attend the Montessori School of Pensacola from second through seventh grades. She and her mother, Tracy James, revisited the school last week for the first time in years. PHOTO: Michael Spooneybarger

Khaliah attended Montessori School of Pensacola from second through seventh grade, and, in Tracy’s words, “blossomed” in confidence and knowledge. She returned to public school in eighth grade (Tracy wanted her re-acclimated to public school before high school) and graduated from Pensacola High in 2010. For most of the next few years, she worked as a mortgage loan officer. She earned her associate degree in business administration from Pensacola State College in 2018. She’s on track to earn a bachelor’s in human resources management (with honors) in 2020.

Without the Montessori, Khaliah said, much of that would not have happened.

“It made me better,” she said. “I don’t think I would have gone to college. I don’t think I would have gotten my degree. (Montessori) made education more important. It was a higher standard.”

The upside wasn’t just academic. Tracy and Khaliah said nearly everyone in the school embraced Khaliah as family. There were only a few black students before a few more enrolled with the scholarships, but race was not a divide, they said. Khaliah made fast friends. They invited her to sleepovers, to ride horses, to U-pick blueberries. “These things were normal to them, but not to me,” she said.

Montessori co-owner (and head of elementary and middle school) Maria Mitkevicius said increasing diversity was a big reason the school opted into the scholarship program. So was the belief the school shouldn’t be limited to parents of means.

The staff knew the stakes, even if they didn’t know how much things might change. Twenty years after five private schools and 57 kids cracked the door, at least 26 private schools in Escambia County (Pensacola is the county seat) participate in Florida’s K-12 school choice scholarship programs, serving at least 2,163 students. Statewide, 2,000 private schools serve more than 140,000 scholarship students, with thousands more on the way.

“We thought this might change the face of education,” Mitkevicius said. “I guess it did.”

***

The news on Pensacola TV showed 10,000 sign-waving students and parents, marching at a 2016 school choice rally in Tallahassee with Martin Luther King III. As Khaliah watched it again last week, tears fell.

It hurt, she said, to see so many who still don’t have choice or fear their choices could be taken from them. At the same time, how nice to see strength in numbers.

“Back then,” she said, meaning 1999, “it was just us.”

Tracy James and her daughter, Khaliah, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush circa 1999. Bush championed creation of the Opportunity Scholarship program, which allowed Khaliah to attend a private school. PHOTO: Courtesy of Tracy James

Remembering back then is tough for Tracy too. Some in Pensacola’s black community could not understand why black parents would support anything connected to Jeb Bush. “We were looked on as kind of those people who are being arm twisted by the governor, like you’re letting the Republicans bamboozle you,” said Tracy, now a clinical recruiter for a Pensacola hospital.

It got ugly. Dirty looks. Heated words. The tires. Tracy said some friends and family stopped speaking to her, and she switched jobs because she felt she was being harassed for taking a stand.

But the rebel has no regrets.

“I wanted to try something different, I wanted to be different, I wanted a different opportunity for my daughter,” Tracy said. “From what I saw happening, I wanted to be able to make the choice, myself, of where she’d end up as an adult.”

“I had no idea that it’d turn out to be such a controversial issue,” she continued. “To be thrown into sort of the limelight of a political battle, I had no idea. I had absolutely no idea how important it would be.”

Or how much of a struggle.

“When we went through that program, I was thinking that was kind of the end of an era,” Tracy said. “But it was actually the beginning.”

***

The shy girl who helped pioneer school choice is now a tough-minded mom who needs more.

Khaliah is married to a paper mill machine operator, and their oldest, Kyrian, will begin kindergarten this fall. His zoned school is one of 11 D-rated schools in the district, so like her mom before her, Khaliah looked for alternatives. She applied to three higher-performing district schools through an open enrollment program, but all were full. On a second go-round, Kyrian got into a new elementary north of Pensacola. It’s not ideal. The drive will be up to 45 minutes each way, and Khaliah switched jobs – to drive for Shipt, Lyft and Uber – so she can have flexibility.

Still, she’s worried. Kyrian has special needs – he’s hyperactive, averse to change in routine and undergoing speech therapy – but has not been formally diagnosed with anything. At this time, he wouldn’t qualify for any of Florida’s private school scholarships.

The irony isn’t lost on Tracy and Khaliah. School choice helped them. They helped pave the way for more. Yet 20 years later, there still isn’t enough choice for Kyrian.

The rebel’s daughter said that just means the work isn’t done.

“I’ll continue to fight for my children as my mom fought for me,” Khaliah said. “I’m not taking no as an option.”

A mother’s plea for education choice

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Editor’s note: This is a transcript of the moving speech Shareka Wright gave at Gov. Ron DeSantis’s education scholarship event at Calvary City Christian Academy & Preschool Feb. 15 in Orlando.

Good morning. These are my two boys. This is Zion, he’s 8. Jayden, he’s 6.

Shareka Wright with son Jayden on her right and Zion on her left

I’m a single mother of three. I drive a garbage truck for the city of Orlando, usually working more than 60 hours a week. I’m doing it to send my two youngest sons to private school. We live paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes I have to choose between buying food and paying tuition.

I choose private school because Zion and Jayden were struggling so much in their public school last year. They were bringing home D’s and F’s. Zion had a substitute teacher for his entire second grade year and fell way behind. Jayden was bullied in kindergarten by the very kids in his school and was afraid of having his lunch money taken every day.

I found Miracle Grace Academy here in Orlando, and I knew it was the right place for my boys. We applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, but sadly we were left on the waiting list. There isn’t enough funding for all the families in Florida who need these scholarships. My boys are among almost 13,000 students on the waiting list this school year. There are 1,200 just in Orange County.

Miracle Grace is wonderful. Zion and Jayden have shown so much improvement. They’re getting A’s and B’s now. They get along with everyone. They have learned discipline and spirituality. But I don’t have the money to keep up with the tuition, and the school’s patience can’t last forever. That is why I’m calling on lawmakers to work with the governor, Ron DeSantis, to fund the scholarship program so that families like mine won’t have to wait and suffer.

Being a single mom of three boys is hard, but I never want my kids to feel like they can’t go to college, they can’t get a better education, where they have to stay in school and be bullied or to stay in school and just have a different sub every 30 days. I do my best. I always tell my boys, “Be better than me. Don’t be below me, don’t stop where I stopped at on achievements. Go higher than me. Make goals. Anything you set your mind to you can do.”

Being a single mom isn’t easy. It’s hard. I always do it because I remember I have three boys that depends on me. All they know is Mother makes the way. Money, money, money. I get up every morning, I thank God. I can thank my supervisors, they have worked with me, they have been patient with me because it’s stressful with me having all the stress on my back and operating a heavy garbage truck every day with no accidents, no fatalities. It’s hard. but to keep these two happy and to try to give them the best in life, and try to make them know that they can go to college, they can become doctors, lawyers, pastors, whatever they put their minds to be, I’ll do it every day with smiles and no regrets.

Finding the right fit for an atypical learner

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school choice
Sonja Baker and her son Enoch.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a week-long series of posts from students and parents who’ve benefited from school choice. For yesterday’s story, click HERE.

by Sonja Baker

If anyone were to ask me this time last year if I thought Enoch, my 12-year-old son, would receive Honor Roll, I would sadly say “no.” Not because he did not try, but because he was not the “typical learner” and was being passed along. Watching your child deteriorate emotionally, academically and not knowing how to help them is the worst feeling. This has been our painful narrative for the past six years.

We hear the saying “No Child Left Behind” but that is the exact opposite. I felt as if no one understood my child’s needs when it came to his learning style. It is easy to place the label of “ADHD” or “behavior issues” on a child without determining a root cause. Does this child really have an attention disorder? Maybe they have a learning style that differs from the average?

I was angry at the systematic practice of passing children through school when they do not understand the fundamentals. But I also accept responsibility for not educating myself to help my child. I didn’t challenge the school enough when its reasoning did not make sense. I didn’t live up to the advocate I should have been because I trusted the school to guide us.

charter school
We’ve turned over redefinED this Thanksgiving to the important voices in ed choice – parents and students.

First grade is when I noticed Enoch was not progressing as he should. He was not grasping the concepts. The lessons were not clicking for him and sticking. The school felt he had a generalized learning disorder, and he was given an IEP. An IEP is supposed to be the legal contract between the parent and school of what will be done to help remediate a child’s deficit. As I learned, if not executed properly, the IEP could be just another “trail” that does not improve the child’s outlook.

As we prepared for sixth grade, we had our annual IEP meeting with the “IEP team” you never see until it is time to add something to your child’s “paper trail.” Enoch had substantial deficits in math and reading comprehension. He also had emotional challenges. But as they discussed the transition plan for sixth grade, the support Enoch would receive appeared to be lacking substance. They also wanted to take a reactive approach to his anxiety issues, such as seeing a counselor after he had a meltdown. I knew I could not allow him to be moved through the system anymore!

This was around the time of open enrollment. I previously heard of open enrollment but when I glanced at the application, I can admit the mere appearance of the process was overwhelming. But I knew I had to make this change for Enoch, so I started to apply to various charter schools. With the new law passed about school choice, I was able to apply to charter schools inside and outside of our county. Unfortunately, he was not selected in the initial lottery drawings to any of the chosen schools, so we had to prepare for transition into a traditional middle school. We were disappointed.

Then our luck changed! About three weeks before school started, we received notice from the Imagine Charter School that Enoch’s name had been selected from the lottery.
After his enrollment, I received a phone call from the principal to welcome Enoch and to invite us on a tour. During our tour, I discussed concerns related to his academic progression and overall anxiety. The principal addressed every concern. For the first time, I felt the school was not against us but a partnership.

We are now into the second semester and it is a miracle to see what a change of environment has made on my son. Enoch’s teachers appreciate and implement any advice to help him. His science teacher noticed he moved around in his seat a lot, and so brought in a medicine ball to replace his seat. His other teachers allow him and other students to stand instead of sit, as long as they are not disruptive. The classrooms are Google classrooms, which means the lessons are done digitally and are more engaging. The entire staff is close, and they treat the children like a close-knit family.

For the first time, Enoch received A’s and B’s in core academic areas (not electives) and received the Honor Roll Award. His demeanor and outlook about school is so positive, all thanks to the opportunity to choose where my child attends school.

It is important to match our children with a support system that can meet their needs. I encourage all parents to make and demand the best school choice for their child.

They depend on us!

Sonja Baker lives in Pasco County, Fla.