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School Choice Advocates Channel Civil Rights, Jim Crow At Capitol Rally


School Choice groups say they want parity in Florida’s education system. That parity mainly comes in the form of funding for building and maintenance money for charter schools. The groups held their annual rally at the Capitol Wednesday, drawing a comparison between the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow era in its push for greater support.

A group of children sang “Sweet “Low, Sweet Chariot” as parents, other kids and school choice advocates pushed their agenda during a rally at Florida’s Capitol Tuesday.  

The song was written during the 1800’s. Some say it was used as part of the Underground Railroad. It was a popular anthem during the 1960's Civil Rights movement, and it became part of a message Frank Biden, the younger brother of Vice President Joe Biden, brought to school choice supporters at the rally.

“The funding that you children receive for your schools is significantly less than that of other public school children...we are the public school system. We’re not a separate system. This isn’t de facto de jure segregation any longer. This is a civil rights issue,” he said to hundreds of virtual and charter school parents and children gathered for the event.

School Choice supporters, especially proponents of charter schools have railed against what they see as a disparity in funding. A common refrain: Charter schools are public schools, and therefore deserve to have the same amount of public money.

“This inequity in funding is not sustainable. If we want to continue to have school choice in Florida, we have to solve this problem of our charter schools having only 65 percent of the funding that our charter schools receive. So I’m committed to solving that problem,” said Republican state Representative Janet Atkins (R-Fernandina Beach).   

Charter school teachers are paid with public dollars. The same as their traditional school counterparts. Charters also get the same amount of money per student as traditional schools do. The major disparity has been in the area of building and maintenance money. But charters have recently been getting some state dollars for that too, because very few school districts share their local building funds. Now the charters are pushing for greater access to unused public school buildings. Something districts oppose. That at the center of a big fight in the legislature this year. And Atkins says charters need that access because the extra state funding isn’t enough.

“Because of the incredible growth in charter schools, because more parents are exercising their choice, we are dividing that pot of $55 million among more and more students,” she said.

Representative George Moritis, who is sponsoring the bill that would have given charters that access, says he plans on removing the language—citing a proposal in the Senate that would change it to give charters access to any unused public facility—whether a school or not.  

“We at students first believe that everything is fair game. If there’s an empty public space, then absolutely, if there’s an educational need for that space, then it should be filled in that way,” said Nikki Lowry, Florida Director or the pro-school choice advocacy group Students First, founded by Governor Rick Scott’s former education advisor, Michelle Rhee. Rhee is best known for her controversial tenure chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system.

There are more than 500 charter schools in the state of Florida. And advocates continue to push for things like not limiting children to one school based on a zip code. Over the past 15 years Florida has created many ways to give parents more options—like private school vouchers, the ability to leave a failing school and go to another free of charge, virtual schooling and charters. There’s also a push now to give parents a greater say in the fate of failing traditional public schools. Critics of the school reform movement all of this has led to two, “separate-and-not-equal” school systems. So why not level the playing field, creating one set of rules to govern all schools—charter and traditional?

“The whole purpose behind charter schools was to introduce innovation in our education system and give a choice. When you make everyone the same, you get away from that initial purpose,” said Atkins.

She adds she’s supportive of a proposal letting districts establish their own charter-esque schools as long as their managed by an independent board. And so the fight goes on. School choice groups continue to push for greater funding parity, and traditional schools continue to voice opposition to a movement they see as separate and unequal.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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