Florida school choice advocates receive national honor

Merriweather award

The founder of the organization that helps administer the nation’s largest tax credit scholarship program, as well as one of its most prominent graduates-turned-advocates, were honored Monday for their contributions to the school choice movement.

John Kirtley, who helped start Florida’s scholarship program, and Denisha Merriweather, a former scholarship student now headed to graduate school, received this year’s John T. Walton Champions for School Choice Award during the American Federation for Children’s annual gathering in New Orleans.

Kirtley founded the Tampa-based organization that evolved into Step Up For Students in 1998, and advocated for creation of the state’s tax credit scholarship program three years later. It has since grown to serve nearly 70,000 low-income students. The organization also co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

Merriweather has become a leading voice against the lawsuit filed last summer to end the program. Over the past year, she introduced former Gov. Jeb Bush at his education foundation’s summit in Washington, told her story¬†in the Wall Street Journal, and appeared on local TV stations in her hometown of Jacksonville.

She is hardly new to school choice advocacy. Five years ago, as a high school senior, she hosted a rally for thousands of school choice supporters at Florida’s capitol.

Kirtley award

Merriweather’s journey began when a scholarship gave her the means to move her from a school where she struggled to one where she thrived. Last year, she graduated from the University of West Florida, and this fall she is set to begin working toward a master’s degree in educational leadership at the University of Central Florida.

“She is a living embodiment of the power of choice,” said Kirtley, who is also AFC’s vice chairman.

As she accepted the award, Merriweather thanked those who have advanced the cause of school choice, including her own godmother, who recognized the need for her to find a school that would meet her needs.

“Continue to fight for this program, because you are fighting for students just like me – students to have an opportunity at life,” she said.

The award was created to honor the late John Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune¬†remembered for his work supporting educational opportunities for low-income students. Since his death in 2005, the award has recognized¬†school choice leaders “for groundbreaking and dedicated work on behalf of America’s children.”