Thousands of parents and children came together in Florida’s capital in an effort to persuade the largest teacher’s union in the state to drop a lawsuit against an education voucher program that benefits low-income families.
Martin Luther King III led the rally, along with religious and community leaders, arguing that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship offers opportunities to families who may not otherwise be able to have them, and urging the Florida Education Association to cease the lawsuit they have brought against the program, reports Jim Rosica for Florida Politics.
The FEA, along with other critics of the program, believe the scholarships are taking money away from the public school system in Florida.
The program offers money to low-income families to allow their children to attend private schools through a dollar-for-dollar tax credit that can reach as much as $447 million per year — which will be increasing to $560 million in the 2016-17 school year — to businesses that donate to organizations that fund the scholarships. Almost all of the money used for the scholarships come from Step Up For Students, based in Jacksonville.
“This is about justice; this is about righteousness,” said King, eldest son of the late civil rights leader whose namesake annual federal holiday was Monday. “This is about freedom — the freedom to choose for your family and your child.”
The rally was one of the largest school choice rallies to ever be held in Florida and the country as a whole. It is estimated that over 10,500 people were in attendance with 240 busloads arriving from all over the state. Many chose to march from from the Tallahassee Civic Center to reach Duval Street between the Florida Capitol and the Florida Supreme Court buildings.
A video promoting the event let would-be participants know they would receive free bus transportation, meals, rally t-shirts, and poster materials. The video was paid for by the American Federation for Children, a group that supports school choice, writes Kristen Clark for The Tampa Bay Times.
Despite their efforts, the FEA said they will not be forgoing the lawsuit, saying the courts will decide the final outcome. In a statement, FEA President Joanne McCall said that students and taxpayers in the state would be better off if resources were put into making improvements to the lowest performing schools.
The FEA held a protest last week at the Capitol, with about 2,000 teachers in attendance to show their support for traditional public schools while also speaking out against voucher programs and for-profit charter schools.
The Florida Department of Education notes that close to 78,100 children, most of whom are minorities, benefited from tax credit scholarships in the 2015-16 school year. Most of these students came from Miami-Dade County, accounting for 25% of the program, or 20,800 students. Other areas that greatly benefited from the program include Tampa Bay with 8,600 recipients, or 10%, Pinellas with 2,900 and Hillsborough with 3,500.
According to the DOE, scholarships for that year were as much as $5,677 toward tuition and fees at almost 1,600 private schools across the state, 80% of which are religious-affiliated schools. Close to 40% of recipients were Hispanic and an additional 30% were black.