A loose-knit network of education activists generally opposed to the direction Florida has been taking its schools recently is attempting to organize into a more potent political force.
The groups include parents, people who want more state funding for schools, and others who are fed up with the brand of testing-based school accountability that Florida has become famous for. Under the umbrella of the Alliance for Public Schools, they are hoping to bolster their fundraising capacity and step up their efforts to influence legislation at the statehouse.
Their inspiration is one of their most frequent targets of criticism – two nonprofit foundations launched by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush’s foundations have taken political and policy wins in Florida and pitched them to states across the country.
Melissa Erickson, a past president of the Hillsborough County PTA who is leading the effort, said the goal is to create “education voters” – regular people who will become knowledgeable about education issues and vote for state and local politicians based on their views on education. “We want to make sure we have a presence up there (in Tallahassee.)
The new group, Erickson said, is a way to work with parents, school districts and teachers and get ahead of the debate.
“Most of what we’ve done, it’s been reactionary,” she said. “Most people are incredibly happy with their public schools and think none of this matters to them.”
Erickson said the group hasn’t fully outlined its agenda. A primary goal is to educate parents.
Many of Florida’s activists have opposed lawmaker-mandated requirements on school districts. The biggest complaint has been the ways standardized test results are used to determine graduation requirements, schools ratings and teacher pay.
As with Bush’s outfits – the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Foundation for Florida’s Future – organizers of the Alliance for Public Schools plan to create two nonprofit groups. That structure allows one group to take the lead on research and information efforts while the other lobbies in Tallahassee and is more involved in education politics.
The structure also means the Alliance for Public Schools will be able to raise — and spend — unlimited amounts of money from businesses and unions. Erickson said the Alliance currently has about $400 in its bank account.
Foundation for Florida’s Future spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said they’re willing to listen to the Alliance’s point of view, but suspect the group will become a mouthpiece for the state’s largest teacher’s union.
“We welcome people to the discussion about what is the best policy for Florida,” Emhof said. “What are they going to advocate? Are they going to advocate solely for public school funding?
“I’d be disappointed if they became an echo chamber for the Florida Education Association.”
Erickson finds it demeaning when critics try to dismiss their positions by accusing the group of being union-funded.
“We don’t get money from the union,” Erickson said. “That’s what they do to try to discredit and it’s not true.”
Often, she said, what’s good for students and parents is also good for teachers. One example: The debate about ending Florida’s traditional pension. Good benefits are important for recruiting high quality teachers, she said.
The Alliance for Public Education has signed on advocacy groups in Hillsborough, Hernando, Seminole and Orange counties. That includes Fund Education Now, a group founded by three Orange County mothers which has become the most outspoken opposition to test-based accountability, expanded school choice and other policies supported by Bush.
Educating About Education
Erickson is the niece of a former Speaker of the Vermont House and says it’s no coincidence the group is focusing first along Interstate 4 – the crucial corridor of swing voters running from Tampa to Daytona Beach which often decides statewide elections.
But part of creating education voters, said Erickson, is educating parents about the issues.
One way it’s sought to do that is by making parents more familiar with the services offered at their schools.
The Alliance for Public Schools has partnered with the Hillsborough County school district to create a parent university program. The one-day seminars offer courses on Hillsborough County school choice options, its STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math), and the new Common Core standards scheduled to take effect in the fall of 2014.
Brandon resident Vickie Carpenter-Duncan was one of 175 people who attended the March Parent University seminar. She sat in on a session about Hillsborough’s STEM and another session about how to help your child’s school.
“I want him to have as much as he possibly can,” she said of her high school-aged son, one of three children. “It’s confusing, daunting, overwhelming.”
Carpenter-Duncan said she could only take two courses during the four-hour event, but left wanting more. She said she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“It also helped me see how much the parents didn’t know,” she said. “When they found out what they (Hillsborough schools) had to offer, they were floored.”