Before the end of last year, politics was one of the last things on Aida Reyes’ mind. A psychologist with Miami-Dade Schools for more than 30 years, she had quietly retired to private practice.
But the 2016 election and the protests that followed changed her mind about getting involved, especially when it came to the profession she’d pursued for decades. On Saturday, she and her sister-in-law Marylin Reyes helped organize a downtown Miami rally in support of public education, part of a nationwide protest organized in part by the group behind the Women’s March.
“This is our first shot at activism,” Reyes said. She and Marylin had participated in the Women’s March in Washington in January and said they had continued to participate in protests since. But Saturday’s march was particularly important to them.
“This is not political. This is personal,” Marylin Reyes added. “Our children’s education should be of utmost and paramount importance to everyone.”
Though participants in the more than a dozen sister marches happening across the country marched outside Saturday, those taking part in Miami stayed indoors due to the heat.
The “marchers” — about 50, give or take — sat in an air-conditioned auditorium at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus to listen to leaders and activists stress the value of funding public education.
Several speakers, including Rudy Diaz, Miami-Dade County’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, and Karla Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, urged the audience to be more vocal about supporting public school teachers and contacting legislators.
“As supporters of public education, everyone needs to become informed and involved,” said Diaz, a TV production teacher at South Miami High. “Know who you vote for, and more importantly, where they stand on public education.”
Though the march in Washington drew attention to efforts to privatize schools under the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, those at Miami’s rally were quick to point to inequities in state funding they said hurt local schools.
Several speakers criticized Gov. Rick Scott’s signing of HB 7069 last month, a $419 million K-12 public schools bill that calls for public schools to share with privately run charter schools millions of local tax dollars earmarked for school construction.
The legislation, championed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., also subsidizes charter schools and encourages them to compete with struggling neighborhood schools. Corcoran’s wife founded a charter school in Pasco County, and Diaz is chief operating officer of Doral College, affiliated with the charter school company Academica.
“Florida is a nucleus for bad policy,” Mats said, saying the new law meant public school students would suffer. “Every child deserves equality.”
A bin outside the auditorium made the same point a different way, as organizers collected school supplies — calculators, colored pencils, paper pads — to distribute to students across the county.
The speeches were punctuated by mindfulness routines and performances from students, which drew loud bursts of applause and standing ovations from the crowd. It was those kinds of performances that underscored the need for public education, said former high school English teacher Chris Kirchner.
Kirchner, 63, donned her youngest daughter’s white high school graduation cap for the rally and carried a sign that read “Florida needs to fully fund public education” on one side, with a diagram protesting “stagnant” teachers’ salaries on the other.
“There are amazing things going on in the schools,” she said, adding that representatives in Tallahassee should be listening. “Funding public education is the single best thing that our legislators could do.”