TAMPA — The Florida PTA, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is trying to get more people talking about equity in education.
A California-based consulting group called "50+1 Strategies'' is helping mobilize teachers, parents and community leaders around the state. A digital media campaign is under way that allows people to describe experiences they've had in the schools.
So far, local meetings have involved organizational leaders more than typical residents. At a gathering in January in West Tampa, guests discussed issues such as racial bias, funding disparities and reasons why parents sometimes feel alienated from their children's schools.
A town hall meeting at 10 a.m. April 15 will be open to a far broader group of participants. The location has not been announced. Similar meetings and campaigns are under way in Pinellas, Dade, Broward, Duval, Orange and Leon counties.
The effort is a chance for the PTA — which battles a reputation for appealing mostly to comfortable suburbanites — to become immersed, in a very public way, in the ongoing struggle to ensure equal educational opportunities regardless of race and income.
State PTA president Cindy Gerhardt said she's thrilled to see turnout at the meetings and the first of the video interviews. She is also enjoying this chance to work in a coalition with religious and civil rights organizations on issues that intersect with the PTA agenda of helping children.
"It's the right time, the right place and the right message," she said, referring in part to changes under way in Washington, D.C.
Despite the success so far of what the organizers are calling "Real Talk," one issue has been uncomfortable to talk about in Hillsborough: The Gates Foundation's $150,000 contribution.
People who disliked the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers system, which centered on a complex system of peer evaluations for teachers, have not forgotten the stress it caused — or the fact that when the seven-year experiment ended, the school district faced a $142 million spending hole.
Hillsborough no longer uses peer evaluations.
"The Gates Foundation has never once been successful with public education initiatives, so I did not feel it appropriate to get our local organization involved," said Jennifer Morley, a former teacher and current American Civil Liberties Union chair in Tampa. Morley also questioned the use of paid organizers.
PTA leaders are adamant that the Gates group and 50+1 — which have a long-standing working relationship — have no agenda and have not interfered in any way with their project.
The Tampa Bay Times asked the Gates Foundation for more information about its expectations. So far, none has been provided. On its website, the foundation lists this objective for the PTA project: "To foster community dialogue around educational disparities through the use of a radio and public forum campaign."
Supporters of Real Talk say what matters is getting underserved communities more involved in the schools. "Is there money from the Gates Foundation? Yes," said the Rev. Russell Meyer, a member of the Hillsborough steering committee. "But they are simply writing the checks for our ground game."
That ground game looks like this: Community forums, followed by town hall meetings to include policymakers, culminating in a statewide symposium.
"We are, completely from the ground up, trying to bring in stakeholders and people in the communities to actively reach parents and teachers," Meyer said. "We want to have everybody in the conversation."
In Miami, state PTA vice president Carolyn Nelson-Goedert said Real Talk will "shine a light on educational inequity, or the fact that we need educational equity. Black and brown children are underrepresented. They don't always have the voice that other children have."
After producing the videos and attending the meetings, Nelson-Goedert said, parents can emerge better able to advocate for their children when trouble arises, or write to a lawmaker about an issue of concern. "We want to make sure that people recognize their power," she said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol