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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Rita Solnet, Florida co-founder of Parents Across America



rita_solnet.pngRita Solnet is a Palm Beach County mom and business woman who liked being involved in her son's school. When she saw many things going what she considered the wrong way in public education, she stepped up her activism. She helped get new Palm Beach School Board members elected and she tried to help push the local debate in a new direction. That got her tied to education historian Diane Ravitch, who lately has come out against the accountability systems that Florida and other states have adopted. From there, Solnet helped create the national Parents Across America and most recently helped organize the Save Our Schools rally in Washington D.C. Solnet spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her efforts, her goals and Matt Damon.

How did you get involved in all these various activities on the statewide and national level?

I have always been a school volunteer. I was PTA president for a number of years. I've been on school advisory councils. So having been so involved, in 2009 I began seeing a lot of changes with curriculum that were happening in our particular county. At the time I didn't realize that what they were implementing was actually the precursor to Race to the Top curriculum, because at that time nobody really knew what Race to the Top was. ... I saw it literally turned our county inside-out. So I became involved at the School Board level and at the state level. That's when SB 6 came about, and I worked with a number of people to fight against that. It's just been an evolution. ... Then I became a campaign manager for a couple of candidates to help get the right people on the board to do the right thing for children.

Now you were one of the organizers for this rally in Washington DC. How did you get to that point? You were a Palm Beach activist, and all of a sudden you're going around with Diane Ravitch.

Palm Beach County was in such turmoil that I happened to attend a lecture at Harvard. My son goes to Harvard and I was there. ... Diane Ravitch was there with her new book. ... I immediately went up to her at the end of it and said, I have to bring you to Palm Beach County. She had a very packed schedule. Her book had just been released, and of course she was going to go on a book tour. That's what she thought it was going to be. It later turned out to be more of a movement, because her book validated so many not just teachers' but parents' opinions. ... I finally was able to get her to come to Palm Beach County. That opened a lot of eyes. ... We became very good friends. And I began assisting her wherever she needed assistance. ... As I was doing this, going around to Madison, Wis., and Massachusetts and Connecticut and Chicago with her, I would meet parents on the side and they would tell me their issues, whether charter schools or high stakes testing, and I began getting volumes of e-mail. And Diane would get e-mails too. ... The brainchild of Parents Across America came from her. ... Now we're in 26 states and we have some plans as the result of the Save Our Schools rally. 

As I was cofounder of Parents Across America, the Save Our Schools committee that had just formed came to me ... because they wanted people to realize it isn't just about teachers. It's about education. They wanted to try to shed the perception that they knew a lot of people in the press could have that this was just a group of quote-unquote disgruntled teachers worried about tenure and saying they don't want accountability.

Isn't that what it is?

No. It's really about proper education and quality education. And it just so happens that these reforms that have been failed, and that have all sorts of research behind them to show they have failed, shine that light on the teachers. For example, merit pay. Merit pay has never worked. ... It was studied for three years at Vanderbilt. A brand new study that came out, a nine-year study, the National Reseach Council ... showed that merit pay failed. It showed that incentivizing tests failed. ... If you go back in corporate America ... I would tell you the same thing. And it certainly isn't going to work in this environment, where you need a collegial environment, teachers helping teachers with one child. You just can't have a competitive situation. And high-stakes tests. We really need to get rid of that. ... My speech was all about the children and education and a quality education and how we've now so narrowed the curriculum that we're cheating our children of the education that they deserve. ... I'm very worried about entire segments of the population that are being abandoned. ... 

What's happening is that the stakes around these tests are so high, you have teachers who are afraid to lose their jobs. So they don't want to teach in the low-income areas, because poverty plays a huge role in this. If you have a kid come in and they don't have parents at home that are making sure they are studying and doing the work, chances are you're not going to see a lot of improvement. ... There's all kinds of factors as to why that child is not going to do well on a standardized test. You have teachers that don't want to teach them. They also don't want to teach learning disabled students now, because they're not going to show any kind of improvement and they're being forced now to take these standardized tests. And there's one other segment that just came up. As I travel the state of Florida and also the country, I am learning, and this is incredible to me -- you would think the teachers would want to take the gifted kids, right? ... But they don't. And the reason they don't is because those kids traditionally do well on the test. But they aren't going to show any improvement. So this is all about these bogus goals and bogus statistics. ... 

How do you react to the commentary coming out from some organizations calling your event the Save Our Status Quo rally? Or if it was a Million-Man March you fell 992,000 short?

First of all, there are so many more positive wonderful articles about it. And I was there. I can tell you, the reaction, the press, the media coverage was much more positive than I ever expected or imagined. It was a great event, actually. So the people who are writing this, A, I can tell you weren't there. B, I don't know where they got their million number from. There was never going to be a million people. And any time anyone asked ... we would say, I don't know, 5,000 maybe. ... 

Are you happy with the way things turned out?

I am very happy. And it was very nerve wracking. ... 8,000 was probably a good estimate. Even if someone wanted to low end it, I would say 6,000. I'm a pragmatist. When you looked out you just saw this sea of people. It was far more than I ever imagined. Also, what people don't understand was, that was a brutally hot day. ... 

Watching the debates going on on these issues, you guys on your side don't seem to be gaining much traction. In a lot of states, it seems to be going the way of Florida. What are you going to do next? How are you going to get some attention, and not only attention but action?

The Save Our Schools committee did meet. 200 people signed up for what they called a congress the next day, where they talked about things like how to launch stronger grassroots efforts in  a lot of the states. They talked about strategic planning. ... Let me back up a second. When you ask about how people report. The one thing I got so annoyed when some reporter asked me a question -- a reporter who was not there -- and said something similar to what you have just said. I said, That's 8,000 people more that what we had the day before. That's 8,000 people who in that heat and in that humidity showed up and marched, marched to the White House. I just believe it's going to be that much more the next time, and the next time. Because these are people who feel passionately about it. ... 

So anyhow, the next day they did have a congress. And Parents Across America, we also had a planning session ... the morning of the rally. I was doing a lot. I was actually the person who brought in Matt Damon and his mother. So I had a lot of last minute things with bodyguards and limo drivers and Matt's plane. 

How did you get him to come, and why?

In early March, one of the things Diane Ravitch said to me when I first met her, she's on a mission and she wants to get the word out. I said to her the best way is a show like Jon Stewart's show. She said, I had been on Jon Stewart's show in 2003 or whenever. She gave me the name of who the producer was at that time. So I began calling. And it took four or five months of calling and writing. ... They called like March 1 or Feb 28 and said we can put her on March 3. We're doing something on education. So I called her and said, You've got to drop what you're doing and get to the show. ...

I was in the green room. That very day, and we were a long time in the green room ... I said to her, Did you happen to see Piers Morgan last night. Matt Damon was on, and he said some incredible things about education. I said, He thinks like we do. ... I found the clip and played it for her. She said, How do we get Matt Damon? She said, I'd like to speak with him. I made a joke. Oh, I have his number right here. I was thinking to myself. For God's sake, I'm not a publicist, and I just got you on the Jon Stewart show. Right? And I was thrilled. I couldn't believe I pulled that off. Then the supervising producer came in ... and she said, I happen to know that Jon and Matt are friends. They know each other. But she said they don't like to get involved ... with things like that. She said, I'll get you his publicist's name. I figured that would fall through.

The very next day I went up to Harvard ... The very next day it hit me as I was talking to (people) ... I said, Wait a minute. Matt Damon went to Harvard. My son then introduced me to a couple of people who said, Matt is involved with a couple of committees ... I met someone who is on a committee. They got me in touch. ... They said, You know, his mom is a professor right down the street. ... So I called her. Then I met her for lunch. Now we've become good friends. She's a professor of early childhood. She herself was planning a protest in May. ... Nancy was the one, I told her about the rally, what we were doing. ... I said, Is there any way to get Matt to participate.... That's how it all happened. ...

So what are the next steps? You've had your rally. You still have detractors. What do you see as being the next steps?

Yeah. You're right. Diane taught me a lesson about that. If I start reading an article and it's really bad, especially if it's personally they decide they're going to attack me or the committee, I stop reading it. Because it takes all the wind out of your sails. It really does. And I need all of my energy. So I look back and say we're so far ahead of where we were nationally than where we were before that I can't stop. And I do believe in grassroots efforts. 

What I want to do, I really want while the Save Our Schools organization ... is trying to figure out how they're going to structure, I have talked to the Florida people who came. We have a very strong bond. I am co-director of Testing Is Not Teaching. We have a very good relationship with Fund Education Now in Orlando ... and Save Duval Schools and Stop Senate Bill 6 and Stop Race to the Top. What I want to do, and I spoke to them while I was there, is we want to form a coalition in Florida, a very strong coalition. And we have some backers now, we have some finances, which up until now we really haven't needed because we're all volunteers. But I was thinking, if I want to get people from Tallahassee to Key West together to form an alliance of parents, having to do with these education issues so we can speak with one voice when we go to Tallahassee and we can assist when the next round of elections come up, so we can say Here's the type of people we want in, and we're really going to vet these people. But I figured we probably need some money for expenses. ... I want to make sure we're together in Florida, because Florida seems to be a model of all things bad in education. So that's one level.

I also want to bring in more diversity. I want to bring in more low-income parents. ... That's hard work. I did that when I was manager of my School Board candidate last year. What we realized is a lot of low-income parents may not have internet at home. They may not even have a home phone. ... The best way to do it was to go to churches. ... Getting to learn what all of the issues are is going to be a lot of hard work. ... But I would like to see us do that. ...

[Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 7:24am]


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