TALLAHASSEE — The star of the news conference couldn't reach the microphone.
First she tried stepping on her tiptoes. Then she got a boost from Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, resting on his knee. At last a chair was set up in the Capitol's fourth-floor rotunda for 7-year-old Jessica Howard to explain her fight to change state law.
"Abraham Lincoln said that all men are created equal, and I think he meant for kids to be treated equal as well," she said. "Can you please tell me why I have to go to public school for a year to be able to do this program?"
The Trinity homeschooler wants to enroll in Florida's virtual school program, but current requirements say a child has to be in public school the year before enrolling. To get the law changed, Jessica has collected more than 500 signatures, which she was presenting Wednesday to the Governor's Office, House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater.
"You tell one kid that they can have this new virtual school program and one kid that they cannot," she said. "It is not fair, and it violates equal protection under the U.S. Constitution."
After speaking at the brief news conference, Jessica collected high-fives from Weatherford and her family, and a few more signatures, including one from Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
Jessica made her first trip to Tallahassee with her mom, dad and 2-year-old sister. She had meetings with several lawmakers, including Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, and Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville.
"They have been nice, but Will is my favorite one," said Jessica, wearing a pink shirt and pink plaid shorts that matched Weatherford's pink tie.
The best part of her trip? "There's a lot of pretty sights, and it's kind of fun speaking in front of people," she said.
Weatherford said he and other lawmakers are trying to address the issue in conference bills.
"Our hope … is that we can try to get this done this session," said Weatherford, who was homeschooled in Pasco County until sixth grade.
Later, expressing his support and praise for Jessica, he said: "This is what the political process is about. It's about 7-year-old children who go out there and work hard, learn about an issue, and care about it and spend time to try to change it."