Denisha

Merriweather

A Florida tax -credit scholarship graduate with twelve years of

 advocacy experience. Speaker at events with the President of the United States of America, Florida governors and other elected officials. A national symbol for school choice with appearances on Fox News, at the Republican National Convention, at Pre-Espy celebrations and more. Author of articles in The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, The Hill, and other local and national outlets.

A lover of plants and amateur plant photographer. My best work can be found on my Instagram page. 

Black Lawmakers Must Prioritize Educational Opportunity for Black Families

For millions of K-12 students, the pandemic has led to unprecedented interruptions of critical education and services. Many students will continue to fall behind and face stunted educational trajectories. As Congress weighs relief during this time of great uncertainty, they must support all students in all schools. And they must reject any solution that extinguishes hope for millions of children of color in America who rely on private schools and school choice programs, just as we did. 

Black Minds Matter

The world is in the midst of a civil uprising as more bear witness to the racial and social injustices that take place daily in America, sparked by the abhorrent murders of black men and women. We must commit to overhauling systems, and that includes acknowledging that our early justice system, which hunted people of color in night watches and slave patrols across the colonies, still lingers with those sins in its blood today. The education system, once a primary mechanism for segregation, is propped up and seemingly prowls for black minds just the same. Those committed to protecting black lives cannot simultaneously refuse to nurture black minds. Our essence and our being deserve life. Our black minds matter.

For many children, returning to public school means returning to a nightmare

Recently, I put terms such as "school,” "high school," and "my school" into the search engine of TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media sites. The results were alarming, with videos and articles of teenagers recounting all the reasons why they hated school. They described in detail every place they'd rather be than school.

We Need Urgency. We Need Education Freedom.

The atrocities of our education system have become so commonplace. This has to stop. With the achievement gap widening between our most vulnerable students and our more affluent, the time to increase access to education options is now. 

As a school choice graduate turned education advocate, I’ve shared my experience with legislators before, but never in the halls of Congress. That changed last month when I had the honor of traveling to Washington to tell the story of my academic turnaround.

A different school didn’t just make dreams come true for me. It allowed me to have dreams I didn’t know I could have. Last summer, after graduating from the University of West Florida, I volunteered at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, where I learned firsthand about that country’s social-welfare system. This spring, I plan to continue my education at the University of South Florida, in its joint master’s program in social work and public health.

The Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs, including the NAACP, allege the scholarships are unconstitutional because the program diverts money that would otherwise go to state coffers that fund public K-12 education. They also argue that the scholarship program pulls poor students out of the public school system in favor of private schools, curtailing funds to nearly 2.8 million children served by public schools.

I was assigned to a public elementary school that did little to address the influence my community had on my temperament and academic performance. Looking back from an adult's perspective, I understand the teachers and administrators at my public elementary school were overwhelmed.  They shared my sense of hopelessness and despair.

The Eastside has become the focus of many urban projects in the City of Jacksonville, but statistics tell a sad tale. The median household income in the ZIP code where I grew up is about half the citywide average. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, 41 percent of Eastside residents receive food stamps, compared with 16 percent of Jacksonville residents overall.

Now that I’m in graduate school, I can look up statistics that suggest I’ve beaten the odds. I’ve read about the studies showing that students who don’t read proficiently by the third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school as those who do, and those in poverty are 13 times less likely to graduate on time than their more proficient, wealthier peers.

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.

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Florida State Sen. Darryl Rouson went to Catholic schools from first grade through college. He wants low-income families from his district to have the same opportunity. 

Sen. Tim Scott has seen how hard it can be for military families to find educational opportunities for their children as they move from one base to another.

Ford talks with Merriweather about navigating the tribalism of school choice politics, the awkwardness that comes with praising pro-school choice Republicans when many of her friends are Democrats.

Congressman Luke Messer has been telling his fellow Republicans they can’t just be against the federal government’s role in education policy. They also need to fight for something.

 Schilling says, the studies showing the programs’ impact on student test scores, parental satisfaction or graduation rates aren’t driving politicians’ attitudes about the programs. Their most vocal opponents seem to have already made up their minds.

Over the past few weeks, the NAACP has faced constant pushback from education reformers and school choice advocates for its proposed stance against charter schools. Some of that pushback has come from Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who recently wrote a series of blog posts unpacking the proposal. 

Burke says it’s possible that in the future, every child would have an ESA, regardless of where they actually go to school. Many of them might simply choose to enroll in a charter or traditional public school, thus spending their entire account for that year. 

The former Florida governor says that on the campaign trail, he saw a backlash against some aspects of education reform. The solution, he said, is to use a bottom-up approach that puts more power in the hands of parents by giving them more choices and better information.

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-Denisha Merriweather

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