A weekend interview with the founders of Fund Education Now, a parent group fighting to improve Florida education funding
As Florida lawmakers cut public school funding, a group of Orlando parents decided to jump into action. They started small, working to raise awareness at their own school. Now they're expanding their horizons, looking to energize parents across Florida to fight for their children's schooling. Christine Bramuchi, Kathleen Oropeza and Linda Kobert have launched a new web site, FundEducationNow.org, and are trying to link with parent groups around the state. Bramuchi and Oropeza spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about their effort. (Photos by Rhissa Parker Photography)
I'm first interested in knowing how you came to create your group.
We all have students at the same school. ... When the superintendent here in Orange County, Ron Blocker, and the principal sounded the alarm that the funding crisis was getting more extreme ... we kind of got together to inform and educate the the parents at our school. Because there was a lot of high emotion, a lot of questions, and people didn't know what was going on. They just heard we were going to have a huge budget crisis.
Were you the PTA leaders? Why did you decide to do this at the school?
Actually, our principal Polly Roper called Kathleen because Kathleen had raised the issue of the budget crisis last school year. Because we had begun to have cuts the year before, and they were affecting us in small ways. So when Ron Blocker said it was extremely dire and the most urgent situation he had ever seen, Polly Roper came back to school and called Kathleen and said, 'I need your help on this. We need to talk.' So Linda Kobert and myself got together with Kathleen and just set about to inform and educate our parents at our school. ... So we did a little homegrown Web site for our parents and just tried to answer as many of their questions on there as possible. We also gave them links to their local legislators and state officials.
And then it turned into a bigger effort, I take it.
It did. I think any time you put anything on the Web, it goes viral. We started hearing from parents at other schools, and other principals. What we were doing with our parents was sending out weekly e-mails with updates and calling them to action. A lot of the e-mails were pretty strongly worded ... encouraging action by our parents to advocate on behalf of their children. People who had never been politically active at all in their entire lives were very fired up and were calling and writing and e-mailing and visiting their legislators, many of whom they didn't know their names before. ... I guess a lot of groups were sprouting up, you reported on them, around the state.
I was going to ask you about that. Because the other groups, they started and then I didn't hear much more from them. Are you all joining forces now? We are attempting to do that. We are trying to find groups that were active last spring and kind of reinvigorate them and give them a new cause. I think a lot of people relaxed when the federal stimulus came through and their schools weren't in dire straits for the next school year. Life happens. It was summer break. They went on with their lives. But we realized that it's still going to be an extreme problem. We have the class-size amendment coming, and the stimulus money is going to run out in about 18 months. So we're very concerned that our state has no current plan to mitigate that loss. So we've gone around the state and met with other groups that still exist. ... And we've also been meeting with parent groups, parents that are concerned but maybe never formed an actual formal group but they want to be active in their counties. We've also met with business leaders. ... They're realizing that a strong education system here in Florida is an economic driver. It's something that will attract business to the state. So we're talking to those groups as well. Because we have a lot of common ground?
What's the goal? Is it to raise awareness? Is it to get specific legislation passed?
Right now it's to raise awareness and educate. Because education reform in finance is a pretty complex, dense and weedy issue. So we're raising awareness and educating parents and others so they're able to be empowered to advocate for their children or their community. ... We are non partisan. We do not endorse or oppose any candidates. It is just the issue.
I know the effort to raise awareness over the past year with rallies ... seemed to capture peoples' attention. So are you really trying to harness the parents and make them be a vital force?
That is the goal. And to get the other groups that popped up ... to all have an understanding of the issue and to speak with a common voice. ...
Do you have anybody to carry the banner in Tallahassee?
Either a lobbyist, or a lawmaker, or anybody.
We are looking. ...
Now, a lot of the groups like yours that started up have fizzled out.
Often there is a lot energy initially. And usually there is some sort of event or crisis that causes a knee-jerk reaction that says we've got to do something. But a problem that is as huge as the problem we are facing here in the state ... it's not going to be solved by a short-term knee-jerk reaction. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So it's going to take a long, committed, dedicated grassroots group who is willing to take back control of the direction of the state.
So as far as education is concerned, I kind of blame myself. I've sort of been asleep at the wheel here and not paying that much attention to what was going on in Tallahassee. And then in February, when in Orange County our cuts jumped from $110 million to $240 million, that was pretty much a good attention getter. Our superintendent Ron Blocker said this was going to be a catastrophe, people have to stand up and speak up and none of us can do this by ourselves. And he was right.
There are so many thousands of parents in Orange County, and millions in Florida. How did you come to be running this effort?
We had a vision from the very beginning. There's been a leadership vacuum. And when there is a leadership vacuum, if you have an vision and you come forward, and you have a structure - because within a week of getting the call from our principal I started thinking about short-term and long-term structure. I started digging into it, researched it, and that's what we did. ... We all have business backgrounds and we all understand strategy.
I think that was the missing element. Because many times when I've spoken to other parent groups, my first question is, What is your long-term plan? ... And nobody really had anything beyond the session. And if you go around the state and look at the Web sites of a lot of the parent groups, that's when their last alert was. ... So we knew from the get-go we would have to be a year-round permanent effort. It's like a David and Goliath situation. Our kids get so much of the general revenue budget through education ... but the problem is no one is representing them. Everybody has them in mind. But they're all stakeholders and there's other agendas. There's no real paid group representing only the kids.
So what's your strategy?
The first thing we have to do is operate as a state. I think for too long the districts have been kept isolated from one another. I don't think the legislators understand how upset the people really are. On our Web site what we do every day is we consolidate all the articles from around the state ... so a parent or an educator can go on there and see here's what's going on in my backyard, or they can step away and see what's happening in the state. It gives people a perspective ... It's not just us. It inspires people to advocacy. That's really our mission. We want ordinary people to see themselves as advocates and also see the need to be an advocate.
How many people do you think you need to get active to make a change?
I think the change is going to be something that comes in the voting booth. It's also got to be a change in attitude. You know, parents and students are the end users of this product we call education. But we are never asked to the table ... to state what we want of this product. So what we are reduced to is discussions like we had this last session over whether or not we are truly held harmless by $30. This debate about $30 is missing the point of what about globally competitive education that allows our kids to stay in college once they get there, because they can handle the curriculum. That really is the strategy, to get voters to be very educated about the subject. ...
The next step is to get them to understand it that it is their power. part of the whole thing is it's not enough, in my mind, just to criticize and ask for more money. If money were the solution, then this thing would have been solved a long time ago, I think. This is about philosophy. We have to change the conversation from quibbling over that $30 per pupil spending and legislators rolling their eyes and saying, 'What do you mean? You're not ever happy.' We have to redefine it as we want and we have to let everybody in the state know this is what we expect of our education system.
Isn't it going to be hard to get so many people with so many disparate views and desires together?
You know, it's funny. I thought it would be initially. I was concerned when we first started. ... But I really think that, see, the brief that we're putting together is all about the economic impact of not making education a priority. ... A lot of the stuff that we hear from the legislators is that business won't like this, or business won't like that. But the reality is, we are depending on growth as a product instead of making our state excellent and making other companies want to come here because we have an excellent quality of life and an excellent education system. The K-12 leg on that stool, as you know, is very shaky. And it's a reason many businesses choose not to come here. So I feel like the business component ... is huge. ...
To shrink this down a little bit ... No, change is not going to happen overnight. But we've got to start with baby steps. The public has got to be educated. I believe the deal changer for a lot of people, and a lot of the legislators do not get this, is regardless of your political persuasion ... these people love their children and they want the best for them. That's the deal changer. We're not talking about greyhound racing. We're not talking about gambling. We're talking about children, and peoples' legacy. That is why we're getting so much support. It's a steep climb and we need everybody's support.
One of the issues is they're going to keep saying there's not enough money.
Well, I know. One of the things that is going to have to happen is comprehensive tax reform. When you take the top 10 states in this country and you compare them, it's clear what the differences are. We have to stop living a deferred life. This state spends money today that they don't have in hopes that they get it tomorrow. I've heard it said so many times, that old adage, Growth is not a product. In spite of all this, I have to say I am optimistic because I believe voters are going to be there.