John Kirtley smiled. It was March in Tallahassee, and the morning sun was already warming the immense crowd before him. Some 5,600 people had gathered in front of the Leon County Civic Center–more than 1,000 of whom were arriving after a 14-hour overnight bus ride from Miami. Still, the energy in the air was palpable. Excited schoolchildren clutched hand-lettered signs: “Don’t Take Away My Dreams,” “Education Through Choice.” Parents chatted with teachers as clergymen greeted newcomers. It was a diverse crowd, predominantly black and Hispanic. Kirtley knew it had gathered for a single purpose: to convince the 2010 Florida legislature to strengthen the state’s school choice program.
A little after 10 a.m., the crowd began heading east along Madison Street. Kirtley walked at the head of the procession, alongside the Rev. H. K. Matthews, an 82-year-old African-American minister who had marched in Selma. Together they proceeded by the sprawling headquarters of the Florida Department of Education. They marched past the state’s tidy Supreme Court. When the crowd ultimately reached the capitol, it was the largest political rally in the state’s history.
Charlie Crist, then the Governor of Florida, welcomed the crowd. Dignitaries lined up to address them: Al Lawson, the Democratic leader of the Florida state Senate; Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options; Anitere Flores, Florida state Representative. Representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James Bush III proclaimed the support of the civil rights organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. The crowd roared.
Kirtley had helped organize the march to put the legislators on notice. Since 2001, Florida had offered dollar-for-dollar tax credits to corporations that contributed to state-approved scholarship organizations. (Those organizations in turn offered partial scholarships to low-income families, giving parents the resources to pay tuition at a private school of their choice.) Funding for the program, however, had always been capped. Offering more scholarships meant passing a new cap. The school choice program was forever in jeopardy, an election away from a hostile governor or legislature.