How to bring more than 10,000 people together to save the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
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.