Florida’s School Choice Program Saved This Girl’s Education, and Her Future

By the time she’d reached sixth grade, Denisha Merriweather had already attended five different public schools. It was mainly because her mother shuttled the family to different residences across the Jacksonville, Florida area. It was also because either she or her younger brother got expelled for behavioral problems. Her mother’s rule: if one got kicked out, the other transferred, too. Merriweather was held back two grade levels, struggling to read and multiply on par with her peers.

“In school, the teachers didn’t really want to help me,” Merriweather told Opportunity Lives. “I had behavioral issues and so it was ‘Oh, this is a bad child.’ When I came into the classroom there were sighs. I could feel that rejection. There were teachers that did care, but by the time they started to make a difference, it was time to move to the next place.”

denisha bush

Denisha Merriweather greets former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at an education summit in November, 2014.

Remarkably, at age 23, today Merriweather is a college graduate planning on grad school next year. Her turnaround started with a Florida voucher program for low-income students that enabled her to study at the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, where she said the environment was “opposite” of her public school experience. She blossomed under the compassion of teachers in the private school from sixth grade onward.

“My first couple weeks my heart was comforted,” she said. “It paid off, because by nine weeks I wasn’t their best reader, but I was better than when I came in. It was very different.”

“They said not only ‘I believe you can do it, but God gives you the strength to do it’”

After moving in with her godmother, who knew about the charter program in which students are able to opt out of their local public school for a private or public school outside their district. Yet her brother stayed with their mother, and their paths diverged.

“He didn’t have the same opportunities I had,” she said. “He wasn’t in the same environment I was, so I think that really played a part when he dropped out of high school.” 

The siblings’ story is a testament to the power of surroundings and presents support for the argument that these vouchers should be expanded. Yet there is an effort underway in the state to repeal this unique $357 million program, the largest of its kind in the country. It is wholly funded through charitable contributions, offset by tax credits. Student enrollment has grown more than fivefold in the past ten years.

florida charters

Source: Step Up For Students

Merriweather has worked with the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group fighting for school choice. She shared her journey in an OpEd for The Wall Street Journal and in a video by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit administering the scholarship program.

“If it wasn’t for the scholarship, if it wasn’t for the school, you would probably meet me on the corner, with a baby trying to make ends meet,” she tells the camera. “I would probably have a job, McDonalds.”

According to Step Up data, nearly 70 percent of the scholarship students are African-American or Hispanic and 54 percent live with only one parent. On average, their families are just nine percent above the poverty line, and they rank among the lowest-performing students in the public schools they leave behind.

The scholarship program is under attack by at least two lawsuits from the state teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association (FEA), which has argued against the legality of its expansion.

“We don’t pay the teachers, we pay for the children to be educated,” she said. “It’s not a business to pay teachers, it’s a business to educate students.”

A second lawsuit also argues against the use of public money for religious schools. Yet for Merriweather, the faith component of the Christian school she attended proved helpful.

“For so long, I was hearing ‘You can’t do it, you’re not smart enough,” she said, but at Esprit de Corps, “They said not only ‘I believe you can do it, but God gives you the strength to do it’. It was encouraging based on faith. Believe you can do it because there’s a god that believes you can do it. Although there are the same kinds of pep talks for non-faith based schools, for me it added a sense of pride.”

“They have the opportunity to do better because somebody believes in them.”

Merriweather said she agrees with recent comments by Condoleezza Rice on how Notre Dame receives federal dollars from Pell Grants, and that it would be troubling to strip away funding from these types of high-caliber, faith-based schools.

The FEA lawsuits seem to be driven by a desire to keep money in public schools, Merriweather argued, and this desire for money is superseding the desire to help students. To these teachers unions, “I would tell them that there are nearly 70,000 children who are benefiting because they have the means to attend the schools that are working for them,” she said.

“They have the opportunity to do better because somebody believes in them. I would tell them to think, although money makes the world turn, I would tell them to put their focus on kids. Put their focus on the next generation. I would tell them, ‘Consider the child.’”

Carrie Sheffield is the Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield.