A weekend interview with parent activists Kathleen Oropeza and Rita Solnet
The 2012 Florida legislative session stood out in one important way: Organized parent groups stood up to fight bills -- particularly the controversial "parent empowerment act" -- in a way that they hadn't in several years. They taught themselves how to lobby and make clear they represented an important interest group, using social media as a key tool in their efforts. Emboldened by their successes, but not taking anything for granted, the leaders are looking forward to the next round of battles they expect to see as the state continues down a path that they see as running counter to what public education should be about. Rita Solnet of Parents Across America and Kathleen Oropeza of Fund Education Now spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek in separate interviews about their work during the past session and their plans for the future.
We really didn't have any active parent groups before. I was wondering how you decided to get involved and how you think it went this year.
We've been working very hard on a lot of the issues all along. Funding of course was what got us started. But we've always been interested in the complete experience our kids were getting in school.
When you went to Tallahassee did you expect to be one of the lead groups?
I think that it was a process that occurred. We've actually been working amongst ourselves for four years now. During that time we've met some amazing parents with amazing points of view. What you saw was the culmination of those relationships coming together, because it really was a lot of different people who came together and arrived at consensus.
Did you expect that the lawmakers were going to listen?
We were pretty concerned when we spent our money and our time to go up there and then get cut off in mid sentence. It was concerning that was happening. These were meetings that were supposed to be three hours long. We would sit there. There would be things not on the agenda taking up time. And then the next thing we knew somebody would call for a vote and they would leave three or four minutes for people who sometimes drove five or ten hours to speak on something that they were really empassioned about. They would not be able to speak. That was really concerning in terms of whether or not we would be heard.
They heard you on this one issue, at least. And I don't know if it will be long lasting. A lot of those lawmakers will be gone after the session, and the bills are going to return. How do you move forward to make sure you don't lose momentum and you still have people who are listening.
Really, this is just part of the process. I think people have finally started to realize - who is it? Mahatma Gandhi who said you have to be the change you want to see. If we want things to improve, if we see things we don't like, it is incumbent on us as citizens to show lawmakers we don't like it and to show our children how to be an active participant in our democracy. That was the other thing that was an amazing lesson. No matter how big your opposition is, in a democracy if you try and you reach people and you have a good message and clear thinking about what it is you don't like about a law or a certain proposition or initiative, you do have a chance to have a voice. The good thing is, if you don't have elected officials listening to you, you also have a chance to tell your story to the voters and to the media. Eventually you can get heard. ...
All of these things seem like they're going to come back again. So I guess you have to keep fighting those in addition to everything else. How do you expand your base from where you are to make sure they know you're not just three or five or 25 angry people with lots of Twitter accounts?
I think we were pretty clear that we were not just three or five or 25 people. Some of the groups we work with, there's hundreds of thousands of parents involved in them. We're dealing with a well planned, very highly funded agenda for public education and education in general. We understand that things will be coming up because that's the nature of the beast. We've been watching for three or four years, and we think we see clearly what's going on. What's really happening is there is a collaborative effort to learn and grow and share and develop perspectives on this issue that will be very difficult to stop. ... It's up to us as parents to stand up and say, 'We're the Florida parents and we don't like it and we don't accept it.' I think that's healthy.
It's kind of surprising ... because for so many years nothing happened. I would go to school board budget hearings and nobody comes. I would go to hearings in Tallahassee and nobody comes. You would go to things where you expect somebody to stand up and say something and very few people come. ...
I have to tell you. I was one of those parents. I was guilty of not paying closer attention years ago to what was happening in Tallahassee. It wasn't until we were looking at losing art and music and PE and a lot of different things in schools that made our schools vibrant that I really started paying attention. Once I got into it and I realized that everybody talks about local control. Well, in Florida, local control is interpreted by Tallahassee as Tallahassee. And I was sort of shocked by that. It got my attention and it made me want to share what I was finding out with other people. And I don't think that I am alone. Obviously. So I think what we are seeing is a shift in thinking. ... People are realizing that if you want to have a democracy, you have to be a part of it.
How do you feel you got feedback from lawmakers? Do you feel like they listened to what you had to say?
Actually, yes. This was quite a learning process for myself. I learned that many of them are just misinformed. They really don't have the facts. They don't have the evidence. And when you spend time with them or their legislative aides, they would listen. Obviously they listen to votes, and they listen to constituents - especially if they're up for reelection. But there's also an element there that I think we saw when we had eight Republicans cross over and vote "no" on the parent trigger, for instance. We saw that people were beginning to listen.
Do you worry that a lot of them are going to be gone?
Yeah. It concerns me. Of the ones that I knew they were very very strong in helping our effort. But I also think that there is hope. Because just as they turned and decided to support, whether they were term limited or whatever the case, I think there is hope that others will see the light. I think that's where they shot themselves in the foot, to be honest. It got to a point where the democratic process, they weren't following it. They weren't allowing people to speak. And if they did, they would allow them to speak after they already took a vote in committee, at which point many of the people just said, 'What's the use?' That infuriated so many parents. ... I think it was really the turning point. And I think it also infuriated some of the senators, to be honest. To me, the turning point was March 3 in the morning at that hearing. ...
How much of that is politics, do you think, in that they were having a leadership struggle and this was something that was easy to target because they knew, like with SB 6, it would become SB 736 the following year and it happened. Do you think that this year it was whatever the bill number was and that next year it will happen?
I'm not going to say it will happen. But they will try again. You're right. It is politics. I think so much of it is about control of one over the other. It's control of the party. Sometimes it's about control of one lawmaker over another. There's a lot of gamesmanship going on there. ... And it bothers me that they're even enacting laws in areas that they're so overreaching their bounds and limitations. They're going down to the education profession at the district level. They really should take their political games out of that arena, in my opinion. But we know that's not going to happen and we'll have more of this. This momentary victory - and we know it's momentary - it did help us to step up our game, I think. We're capitalizing on it. We're gaining more support throughout the state. If there was a message for the StudentsFirst organization or the Parent Revolution out in California, the message would be that the parents of Florida are here today, and we're here tomorrow. We're not going away.
When I talk to the people at StudentsFirst, they say they've got something like 85,000 members in Florida, and that they're parents and they have a different perspective on things. Is this going to become dueling parent organizations?
They say that. But I have yet to meet one of those people. I will tell you, if you look at their records, I'm a member of StudentsFirst. ... If you went into their Facebook site and clicked 'Like' just to see what's going on in StudentsFirst, you're a member of their organization. They count us all in. But who did they get to step up to the microphone? It was people who worked for StudentsFirst, or Parent Revolution, or the Foundation for Florida's Future. ... Maybe they're going to try to step up their efforts. But I think they're going to have a difficult time getting real passionate parents who live and work and volunteer here to agree with these real egregious reforms.
What other things are you going to be pushing for?
Just basically what other reforms they come up with, we're going to combat. And we have some ideas. I'll tell you, first of all, Parents Across America developed an alternative to the parent trigger, so we're ready, because we know that's going to come back.
Can we see it?
We're hesitant to publish it broadly, because we want to be able to give it to whatever senators come up with this cleverly cloaked bill. That's another thing we've learned, the more we publish of our strategy ... the more that was used against us. Because there's an awful lot of people in those organizations following us on Facebook and Twitter. ...
It sounds like you're going to be more active. ... This is one of the first times we have seen parents groups standing up. Should we look for more activism in more counties and on more issues?
Yes. Definitely. And I think you'll see the PTA, that typically would go with the flow, I think you'll see them now standing up. Because it's reached a crescendo. It really, truly is an effort to privatize public education and we are losing so much money in public schools, and we're losing quality. We're also taxpayers and we are not going to turn our wallets and our tax dollars over to private enterprise anymore. I think it's beginning to enrage even some Republicans who think this is the wrong thing to do. It's actually gone too far now.