TALLAHASSEE – They came by bus, many traveling through the night, by personal vehicle and some even by plane. But what really drove them all on this mission Jan. 19 to Florida’s state capital was the same: to urge the Florida teachers’ union to drop the suit.
On the day after the world celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., his son, Martin Luther King III, led more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students, parents, educators and other supporters from Tallahassee’s Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, past the Florida Supreme Court and Capitol building to a stage set on Duval Street.
The first of about 200 buses pulled into the parking lot just after 7:30 a.m. with temperatures sitting in the mid-30s. Rally-goers were enthusiastic the moment they stepped off the buses. Wearing neon yellow shirts emblazoned with the words “#DropTheSuit,” the throngs of school choice supporters flooded the capital’s streets as they walked. Their message was clear.
“Drop the suit,” they chanted.
“What do we want?” crowd leaders screamed
“School choice!” the marchers shouted.
“When do we want it?”
On Aug. 28, 2014, the Florida Education Association (FEA) and other groups sued the State of Florida seeking to end the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which this year, is serving nearly 78,000 economically disadvantaged, mostly minority children. The FEA contends the 15-year-old program is unconstitutional, saying state funds are being used for private religious schools. The program, however, is funded directly by corporations that received a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions to the program created by Florida lawmakers in 2001.
In May of 2015, a Leon Circuit Court judge threw out the case saying the plaintiffs have no standing to sue. The FEA appealed the case in the First District Court of Appeals on Aug. 21, 2015 where it still sits today. FEA President Joanne McCall has vowed to take the lawsuit all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.
“I just find it interesting that in our country we have the gall to debate about how our most precious resource, our children, are treated,” King III told the crowd during the rally. “It’s alright to debate strategy technique. It’s alright to debate what a curriculum might be. But how we have the gall to talk about that we can’t spend money on this. It costs too much. No one is saying that public education should not be funded. What is being said is that people and families need options. One option cannot work. “
Faith Manuel, whose three children have used the scholarship program at different times, spoke of how her younger two children got a solid educational foundation by attending private schools using the Step Up For Students income-based scholarship. Her daughter is currently doing well in a public school in Georgia where she’s now living with her father. He middle son graduates this spring and has been accepted to several universities and recently was awarded the MLK scholarship for the Daytona Beach area, and her eldest son, who used the tax-credit scholarship from middle school on, is now working toward becoming a teacher at the University of North Florida.
“School choice has worked for my family and continues to work for countless of other Florida families as is evident in this turnout,” Manuel said to cheers. “So, I urge the Florida teachers’ union and the other plaintiffs to open their hearts, put politics aside, and truly listen to the families who benefit from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It’s changing lives, and yes, in many cases, saving them. Please think of our kids.”
Jeannette Ruiz in Spanish told the story of her son Valentin Mendez and his struggle at his neighborhood school, where he was bullied and struggled. Now at La Progresiva Presbyterian School, he has flourished academically, skipped a grade and is on the road to success. He confidently translated his mother’s words on stage during the rally.
“Don’t destroy the children’s dreams,” Ruiz said.
Sally Noel and her son, Jannai Noel-Smith, 9, boarded the bus to Tallahassee at 12:30 the morning of the rally at their school, West Palm Beach Junior Academy. They arrived at 8 a.m.
“I don’t think I slept,” Noel said between leading cheers and chants to support the scholarship.
Noel made the journey to help convince the teachers’ union to drop the suit.
“A lot of kids depend on this scholarship, she said. “If their scholarship was taken away from them, a lot of kids will be forced to go to schools we don’t really want them in. We just want choices. We want choices.”
About 43 students at the school use the scholarship, Principal Glenn Timmons said.
“The children are benefiting from it,” he said. “The parents are happy because they have a choice and they see their children’s lives transformed. And that’s always good.”
As the rally came to an end that afternoon, the FEA responded to the rally with a statement saying it did not plan to back down.
“For more than a year, voucher groups have been demanding FEA drop a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the tax-credit vouchers. What are they so afraid of going to the courts to ensure this voucher scheme is legal?” McCall, the union’s president, asked. “Let’s let the courts decide this once and for all. We’re not dropping our legal challenge.”
The tax-credit scholarship is not a voucher program, tax-proponents maintain, as the money goes from the donor directly to the scholarship funding organization.
Knowing the fight likely would not be over because of the rally, King III told the crowd he was hopeful.
“Ultimately, if the courts have to decide, the courts will be on side of justice,” he said during his keynote address. “Because this is about justice. This is about freedom. The freedom to choose what’s best for your family and your child most importantly.”
For more rally photos, please click here.
This video aired in the Tallahassee market right before the Super Bowl 50 kickoff.