Diverse rally of 5,500 makes history for low-income Tax Credit Scholarships


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Low-income families from throughout the state converged on the Capitol today to cheer politically and racially diverse speakers who endorsed Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. The crowd numbered more than 5,500, making it the largest parental choice rally in the nation.

“You want to know what change looks like in the arena of public education?” asked Doug Tuthill, a former teachers’ union president who runs the state’s leading scholarship organization. “Look out at this sea of faces. This is change.”

The rally drew parents, students, educators and activists from all parts of Florida, and began just after 10 a.m. with a march along Madison Street from the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center to the Capitol. Most of them arrived on nearly 100 buses, in many cases from journeys that began before midnight. The buses alone carried 5,115 participants. Their cause was the Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves 27,600 low-income students in 1,020 private schools this year. Bills in both the House and Senate this year would strengthen and expand the program.

“I hope that people get that this is not about public schools versus private schools,” James Bush, a Democratic representative from Miami and the acting president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told the audience. “This is about reading and writing and diplomas and degrees. This is about finding the place where every single student learns the best. This is about fulfilling that very American promise of equal educational opportunity.”

“This program makes our public education system stronger, not weaker,” said Al Lawson, a Democratic senator from Tallahassee and cosponsor of the legislation. “No single school, public or private, works for every child. So our task is to find the right match for each one, and we owe every possible option to the students who suffer the greatest odds against success.”

The scholarship program serves only students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the average household income last year was 20 percent above poverty. Three-fourths of the students are black or Hispanic, and three-fifths live in single-parent households. A state-commissioned research report last year found that students choosing the scholarship were among the poorest and lowest-performing students from the public schools they left behind. In 2007-08, those students achieved the same standardized test score gains as students at all income levels nationally.

CS/SB 2126 and HB 1009 would add more academic and fiscal accountability while also increasing the amount of the scholarship and allowing more students to enroll. One by one, rally speakers endorsed the bills. They included: James Bush, who announced the formal endorsement by the national SCLC; Sen. Lawson, a prominent African-American legislator; Julio Fuentes, president of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO); Gov. Charlie Crist, who has made the bill one of his legislative priorities; Senate President Jeff Atwater; House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon; and bill sponsors Rep. Will Weatherford and Sen. Joe Negron.

Fuentes also introduced the rally to 22 public school teachers from Dade County who form a group called CHISPA, which stands for the Coalition of Hispanic Instructors in Support of Parental Awareness. The public school teachers took the stage to show their support for the private scholarships.

“These teachers know as we know that we are all partners in this endeavor,” Fuentes said. “We believe that the parent is the superintendent of their home, so CHISPA will make every effort to empower the parent with the fundamental right to choose the right school for their child.”

The scholarship program has broadened its political support over the years. It was created by the Legislature in 2001 with a Republican majority and only one Democrat vote, but a bill last year strengthening the program received the support of nearly half the Democrats, a majority of the Black Caucus and the entire Hispanic Caucus.

Little more than an hour before the rally began, CS/SB 2126 was passed out of the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 27-11. The Democrats who voted for the bill included: Sen. Lawson, who offered the closing statement in support; Sen. Gary Siplin, who spoke of the 2,500 scholarship students in his Orlando district, and Sen. Chris Smith, who recognized a pastor from his district prior to the vote. The House companion, HB 1009, is scheduled to be heard on Thursday in the House Finance and Tax Council.

The bills increase accountability by requiring that individual participating schools disclose test-score gains and provide a financial report prepared by a certified accountant. They increase the maximum schol-arship amount, now $3,950, to 80 percent of the public per-student operational formula. The scholarship was 67 percent of that formula in its first year, but has dropped to 58 percent this year. The bills would also allow the program to meet rising student demand by increasing the cap by 25 percent whenever 90 percent of the cap is reached. Student enrollment has increased by 22.4 percent annually for the past five years.