Earlier this month, the Florida PTA held its annual convention with at least 20 new members in attendance: parents of children who receive tax credit scholarships to attend private schools.
Many of them took time off from one or two jobs to attend. And in doing so, they participated in what is, if not a historic first, certainly very unusual – private school inclusion in an organization that historically has been devoted to public schools.
Who knows where this will lead. But good things can happen when people who are supposedly on different sides of an issue actually meet face to face. Even when the issue is something like private school “vouchers.”
As an organizer for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the scholarships (and co-hosts this blog) my job was to attend the convention as well and facilitate a meeting between PTA leaders and scholarship parents.
One of the first things we all noticed was the PTA’s platform, included in the tote bag that participants received. The platform explained that while the PTA opposes vouchers in all its forms, including tax credit scholarships, it urges the Legislature to impose strict eligibility requirements and accountability measures on all private schools participating in these programs.
“What does this mean?” one mother asked me.
“It means they’re against our program, but believe private schools should administer the same standardized tests, like FCAT,” I said.
It’s easy to be against a program you don’t know about or really understand. So, I told our parents, go to the sessions, visit the vendors, and attend receptions. “Meet with these folks and make sure they put a face to this program,” I said. “You’re our ambassadors and I’m sure this weekend will lead to understanding and a better relationship between Step Up For Students and the PTA.”
Eileen Segal, outgoing president of the Florida PTA, and Mindy Haas, the incoming president, both spoke to our parents personally to welcome them.
“We are thrilled to have you here,” Eileen said several times.
She told them this was the first step in what she hopes is an ongoing dialogue. That theme of mutual respect and understanding flowed throughout the conference.
Tony Bennett, Florida’s education commissioner, spoke during a luncheon and drove that point home. He stressed the importance of thoughtful and rational dialogue, calling for an end to vitriol and character assassinations. Dr. Bennett reminded the audience that all who are involved in education are there for the good of the children. This should be reflected in how we speak of and to each other.
Sophia Dottin, a mom of a scholarship student from Pinellas County, routinely met people at the convention who hadn’t heard of Step Up For Students.
“I let them know my story and just explained that where I lived the traditional school options did not meet my son’s specific needs as a student,” she said. “Someone I worked with told me about the Step Up program and once I researched my son’s options under the program, I saw that this was a better fit. I also chose Step Up because it gave me options for schools that included a Christian education and the traditional school system doesn’t offer that.”
When Step Up parents talked about their personal circumstances, the scholarship program stopped being this abstract idea and started becoming something much more real. PTA members listened and asked plenty of questions. Their response was overwhelmingly positive.
The private school parents benefitted in other ways. Joselyn Saffore, another parent of a scholarship student, learned about procedures that would make her a better school leader, ideas for fundraising opportunities, and how to agree to disagree. She will bring these lessons back to her school.
Bringing private school/scholarship parents into a PTA convention was a real opportunity for low-income moms and dads to learn from parental advocates from all over the state. It was also an opportunity for PTA members to meet people who participate in a program they are getting to know in a whole new way.
When caring and thoughtful people come together in the name of children and education, greater understanding has no downside.