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Rev. Manuel Sykes: The march to freedom continues with our schools

Published: January 17, 2016

So many images seared into our consciousness from the civil rights movement — the lunch counter sit-ins, Bull Connor’s dogs, the “I Have a Dream” speech — are in black and white, suggesting struggles that happened long ago. But as we pause on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to reflect on America’s ideals, let’s not forget a sector where the struggle remains very much alive: our schools.

Explicitly racist laws no longer segregate our children, but yesterday’s curbs on educational freedom have been replaced by new barriers that are just as unjust. Low-income parents are awakening to this reality, which is why thousands of them will descend on Tallahassee on Tuesday to send a message to those who defend such a system.

Unlike more affluent parents, low-income parents can’t just move to suburbs where public schools have more resources, more experienced teachers, and atmospheres more conducive to learning. These schools are not “public” like our parks and libraries. They are reserved for the families who can afford to live near them.

Too many low-income parents, by contrast, are stuck with schools where children drop out in devastating numbers. It’s not just communities of color that are imperiled by the vicious cycles that result. Low-income students are now a majority of all Florida students. If we don’t better educate them, we will all sink with them.

Thankfully, more low-income families are finding opportunities to help their children. Sadly, some are trying to stop them.

In 2001, Florida created the tax credit scholarship program, which allows low-income parents to access private school. Today it is the largest private school choice program in the country, serving 78,000 students. Test data shows these students were typically the lowest performers in public schools, but are now, in their new schools, making steady gains.

I know these students. The school affiliated with my church, Bethel Community Christian School, enrolls 15 of them. Many didn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold of their former schools. But in the more nurturing environment at Bethel, they find the sustenance they need to bloom.

I know Bethel isn’t right for every child, but that’s why I also believe the more options, the better. This isn’t an ideological position. This is common sense. Charter schools, career academies, magnet schools, virtual schools and all the other options available nowadays all give more parents the ability to put their child in the learning environment that is best for him or her.

Of these choices, the tax credit scholarship is the only one that exclusively serves low-income students. It’s also the only one being sued. In 2014, the Florida teachers’ union, the NAACP and other groups filed suit to kill the program, and they filed an appeal last year even though a judge concluded their claims of harm to public school students were merely “speculative.” Ultimately, it may be the Florida Supreme Court that decides the program’s fate.

Why single out tax credit scholarships?

The union and its allies say they oppose state programs that allow students to enroll in privately operated schools, but in Florida, there are five such programs. They also say they oppose state support for students in faith-based schools, yet no lawsuits have been filed against the McKay scholarships for students with disabilities, or vouchers for Pre-K, or Bright Futures scholarships for college.

Could it be that since those programs serve middle-class families, too, the union doesn’t want to pick a fight with more powerful parents?

Could it be it’s afraid of the fallout once the public realizes low-income children can learn more for less in alternative settings?

The movement for civil rights has always faced resistance. But when your sights are set on freedom, progress is inevitable.

The scholarship parents are not going away. Their resolve in the face of the lawsuit reminds me of Dr. King’s words after thousands of marchers trekked, through much turmoil, from Selma to Montgomery.

“They told us we wouldn’t get there,” he said.

But they did, and now they had a message for America: “We are not about to turn around.”

The Rev. Manuel Sykes is pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church and former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP.