Thousands rally to support scholarships




TOP PHOTO: Martin Luther King III (center) and other civil rights leaders were in Tallahassee supporting the Florida tax credit scholarship program. BOTTOM PHOTO: More than 10,000 supporters of the Florida tax credit scholarship crammed onto Duval Street. Photos by St. Clair Murraine


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By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

Jeannette Ruiz wanted her son, Valentin Mendez, to attend a private school where she figured he’d get a good education without fear of his environment.

But struggling on a minimum wage salary for working at a gas station, where she and her son were allowed to sleep at nights, affording private school tuition was out of the question.

She endured until the day she discovered a small Presbyterian school in her South Florida neighborhood. School administrators introduced her to the Florida tax credit scholarship program.

Her son’s life changed.

“My son started having hopes and dreams,” she said in Spanish, her son standing at her side while interpreting her every word.

Ruiz shared her story in downtown Tallahassee in front a crowd of parents and children, whose life stories aren’t much different. They were among 10,500 people who brought their “Stop the Suit” campaign to the state’s capital city.

They came to urge the Florida Education Association to drop its suit against the tax credit scholarship program that benefits mostly low-income families.

Buses brought them from Pensacola and Miami and cities in between for last week’s rally, which was billed as “Rally in Tally.”

Ironically they gathered on Duval Street, nestled between the Capitol and the Supreme Court, where the Florida Education Association has taken its case. “This is about justice,” said Martin Luther King III, who headlined a lineup of influential civil rights leaders at the Rally in Tally event. “This is about righteousness. This is about freedom; the freedom to chose what’s best for your family.

“We are here today for our children. That’s what the focus is. What this tax credit does is give kids an opportunity to be successful in schools and be successful in America. It is for families. Opportunities.”

The FEA’s first attempt to do away with scholarships was thrown out of a lower court last year. The union is pushing for a high court’s decision on the grounds that the voucher program is taking dollars from public schools and also is unconstitutional.

A few days before the rally, FEA president Joanne McCall and an estimated 3,000 public school teachers rallied at the Capitol.

King said families should have a choice of schools like the tax credit program allows them.

“It is crystal clear that one size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “This gives families options.”

King also said that the union’s argument that scholarships take funding from public schools is invalid.

“Tomorrow we will spend billions of dollars to build a new missile system and there is never any complaint about that,” King said. “I don’t quite understand why we have a concern about what we are going to spend to educate our children.

“That should be at the top of the list because if our children are not educated properly, then our whole nation fails.”

Before the crowd set out from the Civic Center, marching along Pensacola Street to Duval, Rev. R.B. Holmes, president of the local chapter of the National Action Network, condemned the unions decision to continue its fight in court.

“This is not a fight against public schools,” he said. “This is a fight for quality education and to make sure all kids have the right to get a good education.”

Most of the more than 1,500 schools that are participating in the scholarship program are faith-based. Scholarships averaged slightly more than $5,500 per student last year, with Blacks making up 30 percent of them.

“This gives children an opportunity to equalize this whole educational situation,” said Bishop Victor Curry, whose New Birth Baptist Church Academy accepts tax credit scholarships. “We lag so far behind and now we have an opportunity for our children to make strides and better themselves. I don’t understand why the suit is even there.”