NEW PORT RICHEY
Pen in one hand, clipboard in the other, Jessica Howard walks up to a woman in a karate studio and launches into her well-practiced spiel.
"I'm trying to change a portion of the law," Jessica begins.
Ugh. Not another petition.
But the woman doesn't turn away. It's tough to ignore a smiling 7-year-old.
What Jessica seeks would seem simple enough.
After three years in Christian school, her family pulled her out to homeschool instead. Her dad, Jim, had lost his job and the $4,000 tuition had to go.
But her mom, Wendy, found the homeschool curriculum she chose overly prescriptive and wanted a new, more flexible set of lessons for her oldest daughter. She thought she had discovered a solution in Florida's fledgling online K-8 program.
Except for one small detail.
The law doesn't allow children into the program until they have spent one full year attending a public school — something the Howard family did not want.
"I called the Department of Education and asked how we could get around this restriction," Wendy Howard said. "They said, 'You'll have to change the law.' My response was, 'How do I do that?' "
That's where Jessica's petition comes in.
"We're trying to change (the law) so it does not discriminate" — she pronounces the word discrimigate — "against me and other kids," Jessica says to the adults she approaches.
Bingo. Another signature. Jessica flashes a thumbs-up to her mom.
"Kids should be able to be homeschooled without public schools dictating what their requirements are," says Aimee Walker, one of the parents who signed Jessica's petition.
"It's freedom of education. … She's why the law needs to be changed."
Lesson in citizenship
There is some rationale behind the law, though.
The caveat on attending a public school for one year was put in place so lawmakers would have some idea of how much money the virtual program might cost, says former state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who helped write the measure.
"The cost might be prohibitive if it opened it up to the whole realm of homeschoolers that we're not paying for now," Pickens says.
Limiting the program to kids already in public school would simply shift resources while freeing up classroom space, he adds.
But just because the language exists doesn't mean it has to stay that way.
That's one of Jessica's social studies lessons these days, as her mom teaches her about Americans' rights and responsibilities. It's become a real-life activity, with her journaling focused on letters to lawmakers and her time between class, karate, church and play dates centered on gathering signatures.
"Our goal is to reach 300," Jessica says between sips of Capri Sun lemonade. "If we can, we'd like to reach 3,000."
A constitutional right?
Already, her message has reached into the halls of Tallahassee, where one of her local lawmakers — Rep. John Legg of New Port Richey — heads the House Pre-K-12 Policy Committee.
He thinks Jessica has hit on something big: equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
"Is that provision unconstitutional? There are a lot of people who think it is," Legg said.
Legg is conferring with lawyers, staff analysts and virtual education experts to determine whether the state has the right to tell one set of children they have the right to a public school program while others are kept out. The state allows homeschooled children to play on public school sports teams, after all.
"There's a lot of fiscal issues that play into this," he said. "But from a policy angle, I think she's 100 percent right."
Wendy Howard recognizes the family faces an uphill battle. Before this week, she didn't even realize both the House and Senate have education committees.
Still, Jessica perseveres, one signature at a time.
"I just want it to be fair to all kids," she says with a smile.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.