A large number of lawmakers support at least one provision of the controversial Senate bill 7070, which passed the Florida Senate Thursday on a party-line vote. It awaits a vote by the House.
The measure would establish a new K-12 voucher program, the “Family Empowerment Scholarship," while raising the income eligibility limit to include some middle-income families.
While the bill's progress has been powered by the Legislature's Republican majorities, it has a bipartisan sweetener: a provision supporting Florida's community partnership schools, which have impressed both sides of the aisle.
There are 17 community partnership schools statewide, a collaboration of the Children's Home Society and the University of Central Florida. The omnibus SB 7070 includes a provision that would fund the planning and implementation of more such schools.
As it happened, the bill came up as three students from the first community school in Florida were working as pages in the chamber. Senator David Simmons (R-Longwood), who backs SB 7070, introduced them.
"We're fortunate today, very fortunate today, to have three Senate pages with us from Evans High School," Simmons said.
Brandan Louis is headed to Florida State University and Kaylin Bronson to Florida A&M University. Sarah Bien-Aime is a junior in Evans' International Baccalaureate program. All are 17.
"Brandan has taken full advantage of the mentorship opportunities, which helped because of a lack of positive male role models, which led to a challenged childhood," Simmons said. "With one brother in prison and one brother murdered, he sought a mentor through the Children's Home Society of Florida. He also utilizes the healthcare facilities that are available to students, teachers, and the community."
Louis's mother is Haitian and speaks little English. As a young boy, he lost one brother to a violent death in a robbery, the other to a 35-year prison term.
"It kind of led me to a path of trouble," Louis said Wednesday. "I was doing things I shouldn't have been doing, but when I got to high school, I wanted to do better. To see my mother break down in court because I was a student who went to jail…and I was also on probation for three years, and when I went to court, I had to see my mom break down: 'I lost my last boy.'"
Louis found mentors at Evans. Now he's working two internships at a nonprofit radio station and a commercial real estate firm. With the station, he's traveled to Ghana, West Africa, and China.
"When I went to Africa, it reminded me: my mom came here for opportunity. A lot of people around the world don't have opportunity; they have to create opportunity for themselves," Louis said. "My boss is the economic development chief – he's not even from Africa; he's from Michigan. And just to see somebody go into nations and create change there, and create change in Florida – that kind of inspired me."
Sarah Bien-Aime, who plans to become an orthopedic surgeon, has also been inspired by her week as a Senate page.
"I do want to go into the medical field, of course, but being here has made me want to help," she said. "Help the community know more about Florida and actually want to stay here in the future, and help out because it would be a really great opportunity."
FAMU-bound Kaylin Bronson wants to be an attorney. She's been involved with the Student Government Association and Student Leadership Council at Evans, and now a week at the capitol is putting ideas in her head.
"It's just been a big eye-opener of how the Legislature actually works, so… (Reporter: Could you see yourself up here someday?) I actually could." (Laughs.)
Graduation rates at Evans went from 64 percent in 2010-2011 to 88 percent last year. Next month Brandan Louis will graduate from Evans and become the first member of his family to attend college.
Many lawmakers support the community schools and say they'd like to back them, but they oppose too many other provisions of Senate Bill 7070 to vote for the measure.