Faces of School Choice: A Public School Teacher Learns the Politics of School Choice (Lynette Estrada)
This is the first in a recurring feature of articles looking at parents, teachers and students who have been personally impacted by school choice. -ed.
I am a public schoolteacher who exercises school choice. I am also a citizen who learned a lesson in politics this spring, when I tried–with the help of other parents–to save school choice programs in my home state of Florida.
Lynette, second from left, went with two other school choice activists to visit Sen. Alex Villalobos (R), right, regarding a constitutional amendment to protect school choice in Florida.
In January the Florida Supreme Court, in a ruling I still don’t understand, declared the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program unconstitutional. This program let students attending chronically failing public schools attend a different school—even a private one—chosen by their parents. The children on this program are 90% minority and from poor areas of the state. The court said that because the state constitution requires a system of public schools, the state can’t fund a program that would allow kids to attend anything other than a public school. This ruling came in spite of studies done by Harvard University and others showing that the program was spurring the public schools to improve.
Why did I care about this ruling? Some might expect me, as an employee of the public schools, to rejoice in the elimination of competition. Not so. My son Lucas attends a private school on a McKay Scholarship—another Florida program that enables parents of special education children to access taxpayer funds to help pay tuition at private schools that best meet their children’s needs. My son, who has autism, would not have made it in his assigned public school, nor in any other public school program. He is now thriving in a Miami private school.
The Florida Court’s ruling on Opportunity Scholarships directly threatens McKay Scholarships, which currently help 17,000 special needs children. They are funded exactly the same way. Also at risk is a program in which companies get tax credits for funding scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools. This program currently helps 15,000 children from families with an average household income of $22,000. Over 75% of these children are minorities. Because of the radical nature of the court ruling, these programs are now at risk, as are state-funded pre-K and college scholarship programs.
Parents like myself are concerned. In February, over 4,000 of them came to the capitol to demand that the legislature place on the ballot in the fall a referendum protecting these programs from the court. They came from as far away as Miami, which is nine hours from the capitol.
I came to the capitol myself, I was so concerned. I testified before a committee hearing the amendment proposal and I was stunned to hear my own state Senator, Republican Alex Villalobos from Miami, state during the hearing that he didn’t support the bill. I went to his office with three other parents and asked him why. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that he supported school choice—he was voting against the amendment because he didn’t like a requirement in the bill forcing public schools to spend 65% of their funds in the classroom. We asked him if he would vote for the amendment if the language was removed. He said he would. This clause was removed from the amendment.
Satisfied that my foray into the political process was successful, I returned home. Two weeks later Villalobos was the deciding vote against the bill, and it failed. Three days after this vote I led thirty parents from his district to his Miami office to demand an explanation for him breaking his word to us. I didn’t receive one from his staff and I haven’t received one yet from him. Villalobos told the press that his vote was “a vote of conscience”, and he “had been consistent all along”. Not to me he wasn’t.
I was not alone in my experience. When the Senate Education Committee heard the bill, a group of over 40 parents and children drove all the way from Miami to meet with Senator Larcenia Bullard (D, Miami). These families are Haitian immigrants whose children attend Ebenezer Christian Academy in the Little Haiti section of Miami. The school has produced high school graduates (as young as age 14) who have gone on to college. The assigned public school for these families is Edison Senior High, which has a graduation rate of 28%, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Bullard met with these families in her office, and gave them her promise that she would vote for the amendment. In the Senate Education Committee, one the Haitian parents, Camille Merilus, who is blind, was led to the podium by his son so he could testify to the power of school choice and how it saved his child. Bullard asked the Haitian families in the audience to stand. “These families are why I’m voting for this bill”, she said, and she did vote for the bill—that day. But something changed after that day. Not only did Bullard vote against the amendment in a later committee, she urged other members of her party to vote against it on the Senate floor.
When the Haitian families heard of her change, they came all the way back to Tallahassee to try to meet with her to get an explanation. Bullard refused to see them, and then complained on the Senate floor that she felt “like a hostage in her own chamber” because of the presence of the parents. Now she knows how parents with children trapped in failing schools feel.
I still don’t understand why these senators changed their votes. There seems to be a disconnect between constituents who want school choice and the legislators who represent them. I still can’t believe that they wouldn’t even allow the citizens of Florida to vote on the issue. These programs are now at great risk. All I know for sure is that someday soon, legislators will understand that all parents, not just those with enough money, want and deserve school choice. If they continue to ignore the voices of their own constituents, they may learn that lesson the hard way.
Lynette Estrada is a special education teacher in the Dade County, Florida public schools.