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Eric Cantor pitches school choice as path to realizing dreams

Cantor asked Academy Prep students in an all-boys technology class what they liked most about the school, and what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Cantor asked Academy Prep students in an all-boys technology class what they liked most about the school, and what they wanted to be when they grew up.

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.

Cantor talked with a class of Academy Prep girls who were working with yarn. When he asked them what their favorite subject was, more than half said math.
Cantor talked with a class of Academy Prep girls who were working with yarn. When he asked them what their favorite subject was, more than half said math.

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.”

Other coverage: Tampa Bay TimesTampa Tribune, Creative Loafing.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at


Nilsa Alvarez

My son, Jared (7), has struggled with attention issues since VPK. With symptoms matching that of ADHD, we needed a school that could give him that special attention he needed. Long-story-short, the school that met his needs was out of our financial reach and Step Up made it possible. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Rolando Rangel

Step up for students gave my children a chance to get out of the public education system which has become little more than a test taking training ground. Now they attend a private school where they are actually learning and testing is used a measure of an end not as a means to an end. Thank you Step Up.

Deborah Fell

I am a principal of a small, private school in Wakulla County. Step Up For Students Scholarships enable students in our area to choose a smaller environment and one that best meets the needs of their family. Most parents in the current economic environment could never afford private school. Step Up makes this dream possible. These funds make all the difference in the lives of families attending our school. Thank you Step Up for giving families this option.

Erin Montgomery

As a parent, it has been very beneficial to receive the Step Up for Students scholarship for my 2 children. They have been able to attend a private school and are receiving a top-notch education!

Last year, my now 16-year old (foster) daughter’s grades were D’s and F’s at a local charter school and I received weekly calls/emails from the school regarding her disruptive and disrespectful behavior. Desperate to find a school that was a good fit for her, I discovered Princeton Christian School, Miami, FL. Step Up for Students made it possible for me to afford to send her to private school (the foster care agency would not help with tuition). The change has been remarkable! She has consistently maintained A’s and B’s and NO behavioral challenges. She’s more confident and outgoing. Thank you, Step Up for Students!!

Step up has afforded my children to attend a small private school where they are able to receive more one on one attention from their teachers and are able to focus due to the small classroom sizes. Both of my children have been more successful in their private school than they were in the public school, as a result, they are both happy and have a “can do” attitude! Please continue to support this program, as it does make a difference!

Cristina Cabral


I am so grateful for Step Up! I have three beautiful children who are in a safe, nurturing environment and their grades have jumped drastically since I was able to put them into a Step Up private school. – D’s to A honor roll in one case.

I am so greatful for the Step Up program. Thank you, and please continue to support it. My child actually attends a school with no gang, or metal detectors, or security, or vandalism (yes!!!!!! NO vandalism) She is learning study hard, work on her character, and values and morals as a christian. Thank you so much!

My family has been so blessed to have the step up program i am a single mom who would not be able to afford for my child to go to private school it is such a blessing that my child has a choice to get a great education , the public schools have so much drugs and violence in them I am greatful i dont have to deal with that…. thank you so much Step Up

Hi all! Thanks so much for taking time out to read the blog and to comment. It’s gratifying to hear from so many parents (and from you, Principal Fell) about how school choice in general and the tax credit scholarship program in particular has made a positive difference. It’s so important for politicians, policymakers, the public and yes even critics to hear your voices.

My sons have autism and we are so grateful that they can go to a Montessori school that best suits their needs. We could not afford to send our boys to this school without the Step Up for Students scholarship. Thank you so much for this incredible blessing for our family.

The Set up scholarship has been such a great blessing to our family. As Christians, our wish has always for our children to attend a Christian school with Christian values and morals, but this dream had been out of our reach until we found out about the Step up program last year. We applied for the program and our daughter received a scholarship. She now attends a private Christian school and we have seen such a positive change in her and in her personal relationship with the Lord. She loves her new school which has a small teacher to student ratio and daily bible education. We feel secure in knowing that she is in a safe environment and that she is receiving an excellent education. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you so much for making this program available.

Rebecca Edell

Three of my four children have been accepted for a SUFS scholarship for next year, and we are thrilled. They go to Jewish, private schools. As religious Jews, our children would not relate well with their secular peers, because they live totally different lives. However, if we did not have the SUFS scholarships, we would not be able to afford to send our children to a Jewish school. Going there is so important for them, as they learn about their Jewish heritage, as well as getting a very good education in secular studies. My two older sons have been going to a special needs Jewish school for the past three years. There, they have excelled in their studies, which was not at all the case in their previous school. They are now socially and academically on par with their peers. However, without their SUFS scholarships, they would be mainstreamed into a public school classroom, with twice as many students per class not getting the accommodations they need within the classroom.

As a single mother I am blessed to have the help from SUFS in order for my son to enter to a private christian school. He is very excited to attend the school where he is now. Thank you SUFS!

Alfonso Duran

We are very grateful to God and SUFS that our children are able to go to a private school here in Jacksonville. Both of them are excelling in their class. A private school has allowed them to be in a more familiar environment.

I love that my kids can enjoy learning and be in an uplifting environment. I love that im surrounded be other parents who want their kids to learn more and do their best. Thank you step up

As a parent, it has been very beneficial to receive the Step Up for Students scholarship for my 2 children. They have been able to attend a private school and are receiving a top-notch education – I can also say I don’t know what will happen if they would not have the step Up any longer because my girls have learned so much and they love the school and continue to ask me mom would I be in this school til I graduate and I say as long as we can get the help Step Up gives me. I have twins and one of them say mom I love it how they teach us the bible and one of them say that she will love to be a Missioner when she grow up and talk to everyone of the bible and come home with so many things they learn that I know public school do not teach until they are in a higher grade.My girls only come home with A’s and B and i’m so happy for that Please hope for Step Up can and will continue to help those single mom like myself.

Jean Blanc, February 18, 2014

We are very happy and thankful to God for giving us SUFS to help us with our children’s education. Now, we have the opportunity to send our children to private school in Miami, Florida.Thank you one million times Step up, we love you, you are doing a wonderful job in our community. once again thanks a lot.

First and foremost I believe the Bible should be the main focus in school. That’s not going to happen in public school. In addition, the public schools hands are tied in a lot of matters that make the learning environment not up to par. My children have amazing teachers who teach from their hearts because they are teaching kids from good homes with good backgrounds, parents who care and they teach about God and love and it’s ok to give a kid a hug without fear or retribution. My daughter has a neurological disorder that creates focus problems and the teachers are able to handle her issues when they arise. My son is beyond smart, getting a perfect score on his county VPK assessments. HIs teacher keeps him interested, giving him work beyond what his classmates are receiving because he works fast and efficiently and is good at everything. He has to be kept busy. Public school he would be a dsiciplinary problem because he’d be done and twiddling his thumbs.

Cathy Beeman

Step up for students gave me a chance to give my kids a better education then public school. I see many good changes in my kids and I feel that they are safer and I see they hunger for God in the bible class and they are doing great in their other classes as we’ll.

Elizabeth Castillo

I want to thank Step Up for Students because this program has made a big difference in my family home. Enrolling them in a private school had made wonders for my children. it has provided so much education, spiritual guidance, safety and relief for my two boys that the public system just couldn’t provide. I look forward to Step Up for Students to make a differences for these kids and there futures. Thank you very much. A single mother of 3.

Thanks to SUFS scholarships my children enjoy attending school. Public schools were not working with my first two children and the scholarships helped give them another opportunity that I feel has worked out for them. Without the help of Step Up for Students, my children would not have the opportunity to attend the private school they are in. I have seen firsthand how attending the “right” school can really make a difference. I really feel like my kids have a head start to their financial prosperity as adults!

Doug Tuthill

We appreciate all of these kind comments from parents and educators about our scholarship program. We are working very hard right now processing thousands of scholarship applications in preparation for the next school year. These wonderful comments are an inspiring validation of our work. Thank-you.

Hilda Ardite

As a parent, I am so grateful to have the Step Up for Students scholarship for my 2 children. Most parents in the current economic environment cannot afford private school. I am so blessed to have my children attending a small private school where they are able to receive more one on one attention from their teachers and they are able to focus more due to the small classroom sizes. My children’s grades are all A and that’s thanks to Step Up for giving them the opportunity to attend a private school instead of a public school. Thank you so much Step Up and please continue to support this program, as it does make a difference.

Luz Rodriguez

Thank you Step up for students for all the help that you provided to my family. I being bless to have my two children in private school. The classrooms are small and the teacher can focus more with students. My children are doing much better in private school then public school. It does make a difference and please continue ti support this program and thank you so much for all the help.

Thank you so much for Step Up we are able to send our child to a private school. Which is safe and learning about God which is so important.

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