SARASOTA — Nearly 1,000 students and parents gathered Tuesday night with blue shirts on and flags in hand to show support for Florida’s hottest new party — the Milk Party.
The nonpartisan Children’s Movement of Florida has been hosting rallies — dubbed milk parties — across the state to raise awareness of children’s issues, especially early childhood development.
The group’s primary push is to make education the top priority for the Florida Legislature.
“Study after study reminds us how poorly our state ranks in measure after measure of child well-being,” said David Lawrence Jr., president and co-chair of the Children’s Movement.
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Among other speakers at Riverview High School were Sergio Bendixen, chief strategist for the Children’s Trust campaign in Miami-Dade County, and Vance Aloupis, deputy state coordinator for the Children’s Movement, gave examples of Florida’s education problems.
“We went to a school in South Florida with half high school students and half middle school students, and we asked, ‘Who is Abraham Lincoln?’ One student said, ‘That’s our first president.’ Another raised his hand and said, ‘He wrote the Declaration of Independence,’ ” said Aloupis. “It’s sad that in Florida we don’t invest in education the way we should.”
Florida’s pre-kindergarten program meets only four of 10 nationally recommended standards and ranks 34th among 38 states in per-pupil funding, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
And it’s those numbers driving the movement.
“We must make our children the state’s highest priority,” said Lawrence, who lived in Oneco and graduated from Manatee High School in 1960. “How can we live with ourselves the way we are?”
Calling the state of education in the country downright sinful, Lawrence added, “Surely we are better people than to accept things the way they are.”
Sarasota is among 17 stops on the statewide milk party tour that began Labor Day in Pensacola and will end Sept. 30 in Key West.
The movement has five main goals: access to health insurance for all children, high-quality pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, early screening and treatment programs for children with special needs and — the fourth and fifth pillars are combined — to give all children supportive, caring, nurturing parents and role models in their lives.
Maria Morcillo, a pre-kindergarten teacher for the Healthy Start Coalition of Sarasota County, said she backs the movement 100 percent.
“We know this is needed,” Morcillo said, emphasizing the need for parental support. “If a child gets support at home they will be happier at school and more willing to learn.
“This is a movement, and a movement can’t stop,” said Monica Cloninger, 35, of Venice, who attended the rally with her 11-year-old daughter Julia. “We need more teachers in the classroom and we need to pay then more.”