ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices For Choices, a change that reflects the many supporters — beyond parents
— for the education choice movement.
“While parents and their children are at the core of what we do, our advocates include grandparents, foster parents, educators, alumni, faith leaders and more,” said Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices For Choices. “It was time we make our name more encompassing of all of our supporters.”
But the name is all that’s changed.
“New name. Same mission,” Robinson said.
Florida Voices For Choices, the advocacy arm of Step Up For Students, organizes and mobilizes its members. Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization and the largest of its kind in the nation, served more than 110,000 children in Florida for the 2018-19 school year through four scholarship programs.
With Robinson and her team at the helm in Florida, they are among the hundreds of thousands of advocates fighting for children to be educated based on how they learn, rather than where they live.
“Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. We’re proud of this name change to Florida Voices For Choices,” Robinson said. “We still organize advocates for scholarship programs, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools, homeschools and vouchers. “
The group, which also partners with the Florida Charter School Alliance, works with supporters year-round to mobilize advocates in support of legislation that will get more children off waiting lists and into great schools. They also register voters and keep advocates aware of lawmakers who support, and oppose, their rights to choose the best school or learning environment for their kids. One of its most successful events was back in January 2016, when it organized more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from throughout Florida to march in Tallahassee when a lawsuit threatened to close down the program.
“That was an amazing day,” Robinson recalled. “But every day brings a new challenge and we need these programs for schoolchildren to continue to gain strength. We still fight for educational equity for all.”
Follow Florida Voices For Choices on social media and text FVFC to 52886 for timely updates.
By CATHERINE DURKIN ROBINSON
Florida Voices For Choices
The goal was to get over 10,000 scholarship supporters to Tallahassee and show the teachers union, the state and the country the face of our program. In order to do that, we’d need a year of planning – and lots of coffee.
School choice rallies are a great way to increase visibility for this important issue, generate media coverage and raise awareness all at the same time, whether we want to promote a general idea, like a parent’s right to choose the best school for his or her children, or a more specific theme like Save Our Scholarships.
That, and #DropTheSuit, were the themes of this rally. In 2014, the Florida Education Association sued the state seeking to shut down the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, calling it unconstitutional. In short, the teachers union wants to end the program that today sends more than 78,000 students to the schools of their parents’ choice. We’ve been fighting to save the program ever since.
I’m Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices for Choices, a nonprofit 501(c)(4) advocacy organization. Our goal is to help parents advocate for themselves. My organization was asked by the Save Our Scholarships Coalition to spearhead this effort and plan a rally for January 2016.
THE FIRST THING I ASKED: Has anyone ever planned a similar rally?
We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel if it wasn’t necessary. I talked to a few people who’ve planned successful school choice rallies in our area and around the country. We wanted a large showing, at least 10,000 people. No one had really done something quite on the same scale, but the experience of those I leaned on was helpful and guided many of our decisions.
We thought about the team needed to make this dream a reality. We found a trusted group of professionals with the time, commitment and knowledge to help accomplish our goals. We knew 10,000 people was a lofty goal, but we also knew we could get it done. I don’t take no for an answer.
A YEAR TO GO: How do we want our participants to get to and from our event? If we provided transportation, more low-income families could attend this important demonstration. We wanted as many people as possible and for some families, since our rally was at the state capital, this would be their first time outside their town or city. What a wonderful gift! Some could even add in time to visit with lawmakers.
We sent out “Save The Date” fliers, emails, texts and hard copies to all potential participants. We came up with a strategy to recruit needed schools. And funds were donated to the cause.
We didn’t hesitate to alarm our folks – forces align every day to destroy options for parents. Moms, dads, guardians and other family members are the backbone of this movement. We must allow them the opportunity to defend themselves. We let them know this was serious. We let them know if the union wins the lawsuit, the tax-credit scholarship in Florida would vanish. Then what?
We picked Chaires Security, a firm from the Tallahassee area to help oversee the march and rally. This was especially important, since most of the planners lived outside the capital. Chaires has connections and established relationships with local police and municipalities as well as experience with large rallies, parades, events and marches. We empowered this security firm to be a part of planning process and to hire necessary off-duty police officers for the day of the rally.
Our event was to be a safe one.
SIX MONTHS TO GO: We made it halfway through the planning process and were still breathing. That felt good.
We created deadlines for schools to be involved and set aside a few hours every day to answer questions, ease worried minds and trouble shoot. We planned for when things go wrong, because they always do.
All the way through this process, we engaged staff, participants, and partner organizations. Meetings and phone conferences were a constant. We kept everyone updated and excited about the event.
We took a lot of deep breaths.
During the last month, we sacrificed sleeping. Instead, we spent our days dealing with last-minute emergencies, missed deadlines, interesting requests, last-minute ideas, and daily meltdowns.
I tried meditating. It didn’t work.
Toward the end, we set aside entire workdays (every single one) to solve problems as they came up. Because they constantly came up.
Oh, who am I kidding? We set aside our evenings, too.
On the day of the rally, we scheduled a meeting for all staff and volunteers about three hours before everyone was expected to arrive. If I could tell anyone in the same position one bit of hard-earned knowledge, it’s this: Get more coffee than you need. There is never enough.
We had our cell phones handy, fully charged, and tried to answer questions and solve problems – like the bus driver who insisted on finding a place to plug in her coffee pot – as they came up.
That was better than letting them build and escalate.
We achieved our goals. We planned and executed a successful rally with a lot more than 10,000 people. Our voices were heard. Loudly. We showed the wonderful, diverse face of this program – and made history.
Note: Those who want to see what the day looked like can watch a television spot being run by the Black Alliance For Educational Options at www.saveourscholarships.com
Catherine Durkin Robinson is a former teacher and columnist for The Tampa Tribune and Creative Loafing. She’s been a Democratic activist for more than 25 years and most recently helped to start grassroots movements in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and Maine for Students First. She is the executive director of Florida Voices for Choices.
Editor’s note: Step Up For Students welcomes Faith Manuel as a guest blogger. Faith has had three children use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, and has spoken throughout Florida about school choice, and has written op-ed pieces for numerous newspapers. We hope this is the first of many blog posts by Faith.
By Faith Manuel, Guest Blogger
Blessed! I can find no other word that adequately describes my family. My oldest son, Davion, is a college junior pursing his passion for education at the University of North Florida. My middle man, Nicholas, is a high school senior who is a starting member of a nationally ranked high school football team. He is also an accomplished singer who has received some national ranking for his vocal ability. My baby girl, Faith De’Yanah, is a budding high school freshman who is a wonderful student and athlete. I am working in a job that I love which seems tailor-suited for my strengths and passion for helping others. We are (so) blessed.
Our family proves that the start of a journey doesn’t dictate how far you travel. We have traveled a mighty long way. Geographically, it’s only been about 250 miles; but in growth as a family; we have traveled a mighty long way. My journey started in Hollywood, Fla. I was one of four girls in a very loving and supportive home. Though my parents instilled faith and values into my sisters and myself, I found myself in a peril during my ninth grade year of high school. To the shock of everyone in my family, I was pregnant with my first child. I did finish high school with the help of my supportive family, and the teen parent program in Broward County, which provided childcare on site at the school I attended.
Shortly after graduation, Davion’s dad and I decided to marry and expand our family, and along came Nicholas Jr. and next little Faith De’Yanah. By the time that I was 21, I had three kids and a failed marriage. Those circumstances are not the ideal launching pad of dreams, however, we launched nevertheless.
Desperate for a new beginning, my children and I relocated to Volusia County, Florida. I was a young divorced mother and I was in school. We lived in public housing, the only place we could afford with my part-time employment.
Davion was entering into sixth grade when I was blessed to discover Step Up For Students. The neighborhood we lived in was plagued with drugs and violence. The school Davion was zoned for was plagued with the same. I was working part time and attending school full time and could not afford to move to a better school zone. I decided to inquire about private school for Davion to protect him from going down the wrong road. The school I visited actually informed me of the Step Up program. This program afforded me the opportunity to enroll all three of my children in private school.
When Faith D. entered kindergarten, I was able to place the children at Calvary Christian Academy (CCA) in Ormond Beach. Calvary was perfect for me because it was an extension of my church, also because it was K-12 and at the time, I had a kindergartener, third-grader, and seventh-grader. I loved that I could make one stop for drop off and pick up. I also loved that I could stop by and visit all my children in the same place. I remember many times coming for lunch with Faith and staying for lunch with Nicholas and Davion. Middle-schoolers don’t always think it’s cool to have lunch with mommy, however, mommy thought it was amazing!
I love that Step Up For Students gives parents the flexibility to choose a school that works best for the child. I’ve taken advantage of the “choice” aspect of school choice. Davion graduated from CCA in 2012 and went on to college where he remains. He has been on the Dean’s list, President’s list, been awarded various scholarships for his academic excellence. He benefited from student employment where he was named Tutor of the Year two years in a row. Today, Davion continues to work in the math lab of Florida State College at Jacksonville while attending the University of North Florida. Nicholas has had a mix of public and private education. He attended CCA from third to seventh grade. He has attended public school from eighth grade and remains in public school today and will graduate from Mainland High School. Nicholas has been very involved in school in sports, and singing. I credit his desire to participate with his foundation at Calvary. At Calvary, it was small enough that he was able to participate in almost everything. When he transitioned to public school, he has kept that model and I believe it has worked very well for him to keep him from any negative influences at school. Faith D tried public school in sixth grade and it proved too big for her. She was most comfortable in the family learning environment which she enjoyed at CCA. She returned to private school to finish out middle school.
I value the flexibility afforded to me to be able to help my children find a learning environment that worked best for them at the different stages of their journey.
It has been a wonderful journey; full of excitement, love, and (of course) blessings. Step Up For Students has been a humongous blessing to our family. I don’t know how things would have gone had I not been so desperate to protect Davion all those years ago. My desire to help him has allowed me to help my younger two and many other families. I remain a huge advocate for school choice personally. I tell every parent I know about the program and tell them how much school choice has helped my family’s dream come true. My dream for my children was to be well educated, great citizens, and wonderful people and I get to see my dream as a reality every time I see my kids. We are truly blessed.
Faith Manuel is a school-choice advocate, former Step Up For Students mom and a career specialist with Career Source Flagler Volusia. When she’s not cheerleading or gushing about her wonderful children, she enjoys reading, writing, movies and naps. She also leads a support group for single moms in Volusia County called STRONG Single Moms.