TAMPA — From the moment he walked into Academy Prep Center of Tampa on Friday, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor was all questions.
The House majority leader, a leading proponent of school choice, wanted to know why kids like Academy Prep, a private school that takes lower-income students on scholarships.
"What's your favorite class?" he asked them. "Did you get to do that in your old school?" And, "What do you love most about this school, versus where you were before?"
Being well-mannered children, they did not criticize the public schools where they had spent their early years. But several students said the teachers at Academy Prep expect more, push harder and give more individual attention. And when students move on to high school — Berkeley Preparatory and Jesuit, in the cases of two alumni who were there — they're ready.
"Academy Prep was harder," said Mattaldi Morris, now a pre-med student at the University of South Florida. "We had been well prepared."
In touring Academy Prep and holding a news conference afterward at the Ybor City campus, Cantor, R-Va., brought his school choice advocacy efforts to Florida, where the concept is strongly supported by the Republican-led state government.
Cantor has visited Denver, Philadelphia and New Orleans to spotlight charter and voucher programs. He has criticized New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for his plans to tighten restrictions on charter schools. Cantor's position has drawn backlash from some Democratic and labor leaders who see it as an assault on traditional public schools.
But at Academy Prep, he got a chance to explore the issue in a setting that has been widely successful.
"This needs to be multiplied, immediately and very fast," said Sophia Flores, who has one son at Academy Prep and another who attended previously and is now at Columbia University.
Launched a decade ago with a sister school in St. Petersburg, Academy Prep serves grades 5 through 8 with single-gender classes and enrichment activities that run six days a week, up to 11 hours a day and 11 months a year.
According to John Kirtley, founder of the state scholarship program, students often enter Academy Prep at least a year behind grade level on standardized tests but are well above grade level when they leave.
Statewide, 60,000 students go to private schools using the scholarships, which get their money from corporations that make donations and get tax credits.
Cantor made it clear he was impressed by Academy Prep, from the enthusiasm of the students to the statistics on their achievements.
"You're really lucky to have Academy Prep," he told some students in a technology lab. "Most kids don't have this kind of privilege to have a school like this."
At a roundtable discussion later, Cantor described his journey to embrace school choice.
"I have three kids, all in public schools," he said. Living in suburban Virginia, "it struck me that we chose to live where we did because they had good public schools. But not everybody had that choice."
"Choice" is a broad term that encompasses magnets, charters, vouchers, home and online schooling.
The Student Success Act, a federal overhaul of No Child Left Behind, would have given more education autonomy to the states. An amendment by Cantor would allow federal Title I funds, now awarded to schools, to follow students to other public schools or to charter schools.
The legislation passed the House last year but died in the Senate. Cantor said Friday he hopes it will be reintroduced.
While the issue of choice is largely partisan, Kirtley said those lines are blurring. The Florida law that authorized the scholarships passed in 2001 with only one Democratic vote.
In 2009, when it was reauthorized, 43 percent of all Democrats — including a majority of the Legislative Black Caucus — endorsed it.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]