The Congressman from Virginia asked the Florida boys in navy pants and green polos what they wanted to be when they grew up. All of them in this middle school classroom were black or Hispanic. All had been awarded school choice scholarships for low-income students.
One by one, they offered their answers.
Architect. Engineer. Paleontologist. The next student said he was gunning for the NFL first, with a transition later to entrepreneur.
“There you go,” smiled the lawmaker, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
The exchange came Friday, during Cantor’s visit to Academy Prep, a private school in Tampa that routinely sends its low-income, minority students to top-tier high schools, and from there, to 4-year colleges. After meeting with students and parents, Cantor praised the school as a model for how expanded school choice can help more kids realize their dreams.
“When I go around the country and see kids your age, most kids don’t have this kind of privilege to have a school like this,” Cantor told the students. “We’re hoping to make sure every student your age can have this kind of privilege. Because you know why?”
“Every one of you just had a dream. And you know where you want to go, and you’re going to go for it,” Cantor continued. “That’s what being here allows you to do.”
Cantor has become a leading Republican voice for choice, with visits in the last year to either charter or voucher schools in Denver, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. He and other Republicans are putting a lot more attention on school choice at the federal level.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., filed a bill that would create a federal tax credit scholarship, and the House-passed Student Success Act includes several school choice components. More recently, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., filed a bill to give military families expanded school choice options, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., filed legislation that would convert up to $24 billion in federal education spending into $2,100 vouchers.
To some extent, the Republican pitch belies the choice movement’s increasing bipartisanship. Growing numbers of Democrats – newly elected U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., being perhaps the most prominent example – are emerging as supporters of school choice, including publicly funded private options like vouchers and tax credit scholarships. At the same time, it’s also true that Democrats continue to be among the strongest critics. Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is engaged in a much-publicized skirmish with charter schools, and the Obama administration’s Justice Department is challenging voucher programs in Louisiana and Wisconsin.
Cantor steered clear of partisan digs Friday. He noted that his kids attended public schools. He talked opportunity and possibility.
“If we could just have more Academy Preps, not just in Florida but across America, we’d be a lot better off,” Cantor told reporters. It and the other choice school he visited, he said, “are gems when it comes to the most vulnerable kids.”
In a round table discussion with students, parents and Academy Prep alumni, Cantor was joined by Step Up For Students Chairman John Kirtley. (Step Up administers the tax credit scholarship program, and co-hosts this blog.)
Kirtley noted that in Florida, more than 40 percent of PreK-12 students now attend schools other than the ones they were zoned for. He praised school districts for expanding choice with magnet schools, career academies and other options. He said Step Up views itself as a partner with public schools, not a competitor.
“Rather than saying, wholesale, this school is good, this school is bad,” Kirtley said, “it’s which school is the right fit for that kid?”
The parents couldn’t agree more.
Academy Prep is positive and stimulating, one mom said. There’s more time on task (Academy Prep has 11-hour days) and more enrichment activities like chess. Also, in the morning, there’s prayer. After principal Lincoln Tamayo noted the average student enters one year behind grade level and leaves 1.5 grade levels ahead, the mom added of her son: “He’s not the cream of the crop. But he will be by the time he leaves here.”
Another parent, Sophia Flores, told Cantor she hoped his home state could follow in Florida’s footsteps, and soon. Her oldest son, an Academy Prep grad, is now in his second year at Columbia University. It wouldn’t have been possible without a school choice scholarship and Academy Prep, she said.
Programs like this, she said. “need to multiply immediately.”