Why we must give Betsy DeVos and school choice a chance
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The education that changed my life ultimately came from a private school I attended after years of struggling in underperforming traditional public schools. The prospect of a U.S. education secretary who grasps the importance of providing low-income students and their parents with the right to access better options is long overdue. Unfortunately, those who cast Betsy DeVos’ support for school choice as an attack on public education disregard the extent to which the status quo is often a dead end for students like me.

I say this with no malice. Traditional public schools still work miracles for many students. But the reality is that not every child learns the same way. A schooling model that was borne of the Industrial Revolution is facing a desperate need to reinvent itself. My scholarship is part of this evolution.

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Last year in Florida, 1.5 million, or 43 percent, of all pre-K-12 students attended a school other than the one assigned by the address where they live. School districts themselves have led the charge for choice, creating academic-themed magnet schools, career academies, International Baccalaureate programs, online education, and courses that fulfill high school and college credits at the same time. Students can also choose from district-approved, privately-run charter schools and from scholarships to private schools that are based on financial and special needs.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which served 95,000 children from low-income and working-class households in the state this year, turned my life around. School was such a nightmare so early in my life that I managed to fail third grade twice before my godmother took me in and decided that I needed a change.

That change was Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school in Jacksonville that was accessible to us only because of a scholarship that helped my godmother afford the tuition. Esprit de Corps gave me purpose, treated me like I mattered and worked with me when I was slow to understand. It also restored my confidence. I'm already the first member of my family to attend college. In May, I hope to receive a master's degree in social work from the University of South Florida.

I first met DeVos in the summer of 2013, when I shared my story at an American Federation for Children gathering in Washington, D.C. She encouraged me to push past generational poverty and the many obstacles life would throw my way as I pursued my higher education. Since then, she has helped me share my story on the national stage in hopes that more children can have the same opportunity I did.

I've had the chance to testify before Congress, and earlier this year, I joined DeVos on a panel at the Republican National Convention, even though I am not a Republican. That day, she said there are too many students who, like me, don't fit in traditional schools and are at risk of dropping out. She asked the people gathered in Cleveland to think of the human potential that is lost when 1.3 million children a year quit school. She asked them to think of how stories like mine show how things could be different.

I'm not the only one who has been helped. Students who choose the Florida scholarship are among the poorest and lowest performing students in traditional public schools that leave them behind. Thanks to greater choices and parental control, these students are now largely achieving the same gains on standardized tests as students of all incomes nationally. Public education is strengthened by competition and new learning options, particularly for children of lesser means who tend to have so few.

The good news is that school choice is gaining bipartisan support. Nearly half the Democrats in the Florida legislature supported a major expansion of tax credit scholarships in 2010. Two prominent Democratic scholarship supporters in Florida, Al Lawson and Darren Soto, were just elected to Congress. Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker was elected to the Senate two years ago. On top of it all, President Obama has spent eight years trying to double the number of students who attend charter schools.

This expanding educational landscape is nothing to be feared. It is not about pitting one school or school type against another. It's simply about giving parents more options to find the school that works best for their children. As one of the nation’s most passionate advocates for school choice and greater educational opportunities for at-risk children, this is a lesson that DeVos can help the entire nation learn.

Denisha Merriweather is a former Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program student who shared her story about how access to the program changed her life. She is the first in her family to graduate from high school and college and is now working toward her master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida.


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