Thousands kick off School Choice Week in Jacksonville

Rev. Matthews on School Choice Week stage
Rev. HK Matthews of Pensacola talks school choice and civil rights at a National School Choice Week kickoff rally in Jacksonville.

Nearly 2,000 students and parents packed Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre to start the largest-ever week-long celebration of school choice.

National School Choice Week officially starts Jan. 25, but Friday’s rally was part of the first round of more than 11,000 planned events. The events aim for a celebratory tone, with music, dancing, celebrity guests and tributes to the range of educational options: district, charter, private, virtual and home education.

Desmond Howard, a former Jacksonville Jaguar and Heisman Trophy winner, told the capacity crowd that some students benefit from options beyond the schools that are assigned to them.

“I don’t believe your potential should be limited because of your ZIP code, because of your assigned school, because of an antiquated system that limits families from accessing quality schools,” he said. “As a parent, I know this first hand. Every child is unique.”

Denisha Merriweather, who grew up in Jacksonville and has become a prominent advocate for school choice, helped set the stage for figures like Duval County School Board member Jason Fischer, state Board of Education member Gary Chartrand and Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform. Others, like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, made video appearances.

Merriweather attended Esprit de Corps Center for Learning with the help of a scholarship funded by Step Up For Students, the non-profit that administers the scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Public school options  especially those that emphasize the arts  got a shout out from Florida’s Teacher of Year, Christie Bassett, who leads the art department at Highlands Grove Elementary in Polk County.

“When parents have more say in where their children go to school, everybody wins,” she said, adding: “We love having choices in every area of our lives. Education should be no different.”

Step Up For Students Chief Storyteller Lisa Davis contributed reporting and photos to this post.