Standing up to tribal pressure

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, addresses a group of education choice supporters at Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy, one of three stops Gov. Ron DeSantis made Thursday to tout the new Family Empowerment Scholarship. Also pictured is DeSantis, behind Newton; and from left to right beside Newton, former Rep. Frank Peterman Jr. (D-St. Petersburg), Sen. Jeff Brandes, (R-St. Petersburg), Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. (R-Hialeah), Sen. Ed Hooper (R-Clearwater), Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mt. Dora) and Pastor Robert Ward.

Last Thursday was a wonderful day for students in Florida, especially students living in undervalued neighborhoods and desperate for educational options. Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled the state promoting the belief that those children, not just those from families of means, should be in great schools.

As executive director of Florida Parent Network, I manage a team of professional organizers who planned and arranged these events, and at the last one, in Miami, DeSantis signed a bill that officially created the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

This scholarship will help 18,000 students get off scholarship waiting lists and into schools they couldn’t otherwise afford.

It was a long, rewarding day.

At every stop, our champions in the Legislature joined the governor to talk about this year’s legislative session. They thanked each other, and supporters, for getting this bill past the finish line.

Most of our champions are Republicans, and despite the fact I’m more to the left than anyone in any room I’m in, I stood and applauded them for doing the right thing by our kids. Even when some gave speeches with the usual “government doesn’t know best” theme, I understand that’s their thing.

They gotta do them.

The few Democrats brave enough to stand up to school districts and teachers’ unions have a special place in my heart. Six of them in the Florida House of Representatives did just that this legislative session.

We must acknowledge and appreciate that it is never easy to withstand tribal pressures, and these days it’s more difficult and rarer than ever before.

That’s why Rep. Wengay Newton’s speech at the St. Petersburg event made my day.

I don’t want to hear from folks who’ve never needed assistance that government programs don’t work. They do work. They work quite well.

Government programs work best when constituents of all income levels have choice, options and power.

Newton talked about specific programs that helped his family while he was growing up. Government programs made it possible for him to learn, thrive and ultimately serve his neighbors in the state legislature.

He has a certain “authenticity” to which almost no one else that day could lay similar claim.

“The school to prison pipeline is real,” he said. “It’s not a charter school to prison pipeline. It’s not a private school to prison pipeline. It’s a public school to prison pipeline.”

Can we take a moment and think about the wisdom and experience behind this viewpoint? Democrats who gather around a table to bash school choice hardly ever acknowledge that they themselves have never for one moment entertained the thought of allowing their children to attend substandard schools.

Those who are against educational options always seem to have them.

They deserve to be shamed for denying others that from which they benefit.

Newton said he never – never – sees many black males when he goes to successful high schools during the Great American Teach-In.

“But when I go to county jails and juvenile facilities,” he continued, “I see a lot of black males. You’re well-represented.”

Democrats opposed to educational options support a system that benefits white upper-class children at the expense of everyone else. They back a system that is good at one thing and one thing only: securing the jobs of the people who work there.

Newton encouraged the students in attendance to work hard.

“Cause if you don’t do it, they’ve got plans for you on the other side.”

I’ve heard supporters apologize for educational options, pretending that empowering parents isn’t the end all, be all. I disagree. Choice might not be the only great idea, but it’s the best one.

“You’re provided an opportunity,” Newton said. “Not a guarantee, but an opportunity.”

That is what we can give our kids.

He reminded the audience that the area in which they were sitting was home to “failure factories,” a powerful reminder to those who believe in only one educational delivery system. That one delivery system has been failing minority children for decades.

“If you know all the secret codes to Play Station 4, that tells me your brain is working just fine,” Newton said.

In other words, don’t believe that you can’t succeed. That you can’t learn.

Those who can’t teach will blame everything — parents, poverty, salaries, etc. But the truth is that children of lesser means can learn. They just can’t learn from a single system or the teachers who flock to it.

Newton also reminded the students that he and they come from the same place.

That’s the most powerful message of all. Every single child from impoverished neighborhoods has potential. And shame on any system that allows an ideology to shine, instead of a child.

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BY Catherine Durkin Robinson

Catherine Durkin Robinson is a former teacher and columnist for the Tampa Tribune and Creative Loafing. A Democratic activist for 30 years, she got her start in the education choice movement as a grassroots leader in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Maine working with StudentsFirst. She has been organizing scholarship parents since 2013.