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School choice, HBCU support top education priorities for Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus

The caucus announced its 2020 goals for justice, housing and other key issues, as well, with members saying they will stick together to pursue them.

As Florida’s 2020 legislative session approaches, the Black Caucus stepped forward Tuesday to publicize the priorities it would like to see as outcomes.

Members of the group, which includes 21 House members and six senators, emphasized the importance of education to their communities. But in a nod to the growing support for issues such as private school vouchers for low-income families, the caucus straddled the fence when it comes to PreK-12 education goals.

“We believe in investing in public education,” said Rep. Bruce Antone, an Orlando Democrat who serves as the ranking minority member of the House Education Committee. “And we also believe in school choice."

Antone paused, and added, “But in terms moreso of school choice, in the public school system.”

He referred to offerings such as magnet schools and, to a lesser degree, charter schools. Those get public funds and are subject to the same performance accountability requirements as district schools.

But the Black Caucus has split in recent years over its backing of expanded tax credit scholarships and vouchers, with some Democrats among its members joining with the Republicans to vote for bills that give more choices to families in the areas they represent. Last year, five black Democrat lawmakers received recognition from Jeb Bush’s pro-choice education foundation for their votes on issues including as vouchers.

The caucus also is looking to direct more support to three historically black colleges and universities — Bethune-Cookman, Florida Memorial and Edward Waters — which have found themselves facing challenges and sometimes controversy as they strive to grow and remain viable.

“They have done so much for our community, and we need to be there with them at this time of need,” said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Pompano Beach.

The education initiatives land amid a variety of other objectives for the caucus, ranging from protecting voting rights to ensuring adequate and safe affordable housing. Members called for diversity in the judiciary — particularly on the state Supreme Court — and changes in the way Florida deals with gun violence, as well.

Sen. Bobby Powell Jr., D-West Palm Beach and caucus vice chairman, acknowledged that the aims are many and, in some cases, the members don’t always agree. But they plan to stand together in an attempt to reach the goals they settled upon as a group.

“As a caucus,” Powell said, “we will be unified. ... In order to move forward, we will remain unified.”