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Parent trigger bill spawns mystery video by supposed supporters

This screen grab from a video produced by Parent Revolution is attributed to a group known as Sunshine Parents. It argues for the so-called parent trigger bill before the Legislature.
This screen grab from a video produced by Parent Revolution is attributed to a group known as Sunshine Parents. It argues for the so-called parent trigger bill before the Legislature.
Published Apr. 27, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — For weeks, it seemed, few parents in Florida supported the so-called parent trigger bill.

And then, a video began circulating in the Capitol.

The video, featuring South Florida moms praising the legislation, was attributed to a mysterious grass roots group known as the Sunshine Parents. But it was actually produced by Parent Revolution, the California-based advocacy group that has been using its considerable resources and political heft to promote the legislation nationwide, Parent Revolution confirmed Friday.

Emails to the Sunshine Parents were not returned.

Doubt has also been cast on a petition allegedly signed by more than 1,200 supporters of the parent trigger proposal. Three people whose names appear on the petition told the Times/Herald they never signed it.

"It's sad that they are resorting to these tactics," said Rita Solnet, a Palm Beach County mother whose nonprofit organization Parents Across America opposes the parent trigger bill. "But it puts it all in perspective. It's people from outside Florida and outside our schools who support this bill. It's not the real parents."

Parent trigger (SB 862) hits the Senate floor Monday. The House version (HB 867) has already passed.

The controversial proposal would enable a majority of parents to demand sweeping changes at failing public schools, including having a charter school management company step in. It would also require principals to notify parents when their kids are assigned to "ineffective" or out-of-field teachers for two consecutive years, and provide information about virtual-education alternatives.

Supporters, led by former Gov. Jeb Bush and former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, say the legislation would empower parents to play a more-active role in the public school system. But opponents say it would give for-profit education companies the opportunity to take over vulnerable schools. They point to California, where efforts to pull the trigger have played out amid allegations of parent coercion and petitions with fraudulent signatures.

"Our members are concerned about how this bill will break apart our communities," said Mindy Gould, who heads the Florida PTA's legislative committee.

In addition to Florida PTA, parent groups lined up against the bill include Fund Education Now, 50th No More and Parents Across America. The NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens oppose the legislation, too.

For weeks, the groups have blasted lawmakers with thousands of emails and traveled to Tallahassee to testify against the proposals. They have challenged legislators to find any parents who support the measure.

The high-quality Sunshine Parents video and a shorter "sneak peek" surfaced last week, along with a host of questions about who had produced it.

In the videos, the Sunshine Parents describe themselves as "an active and engaged group of parents throughout Florida that are seeking to transform the schools in their communities to serve all children." But they offer no other information about the organization. The Sunshine Parents have no public online presence, and haven't made themselves known around the Capitol.

The videos circulated in an email that linked to a petition by Bush's education think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future. But foundation spokeswoman Allison Aubuchon said there was "no formal association" between Bush's organization and Sunshine Parents.

"We think it's a great video, but we can't take credit for it," she said.

The videos and the email made no reference to Parent Revolution. But Arlice Sims, who works at the Coconut Grove Barnyard, said Parent Revolution organizers Mehul Patel and Shirley Ford came to the community center earlier this month to produce the 32-minute documentary and trailer.

Parent Revolution spokesman David Phelps said his group had indeed "initiated" the mini-documentary, but wasn't "directly affiliated" with Sunshine Parents. He said the connection was brokered through the Urban League of Greater Miami.

The Urban League is run by T. Willard Fair, who serves on the Foundation for Florida's Future board of directors, and was a Bush appointee to the state Board of Education.

Fair said Sunshine Parents was newly formed, but said he was "insulted" at the suggestion that the group had been created to carry water for Bush's foundation or Parent Revolution.

"When minority parents decide that they need to flex their muscles, there is always some criticism," he said.

Separately, questions have been raised about signatures collected in support of the parent trigger by StudentsFirst, the education think tank founded by Rhee.

Maria and Dan O'Hollearn, of Coral Gables, both said they didn't sign the petition, despite their names and addresses appearing on the petition.

"I wouldn't have signed anything like that," said Maria O'Hollearn, a health care professional.

Carlos Herrera, a 24-year-old Florida International University student, said he, too, was surprised his name was on the list of supporters. Herrera said he wasn't familiar with StudentsFirst or the parent trigger bill, and didn't remember signing a petition supporting it.

A spokesman for StudentsFirst said the organization "stands by the authenticity of the signatures." And Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who has referenced the petition during debates, said she had no reason to doubt their legitimacy.

But other senators said lingering questions over the petition and the videos would cast a dark shadow heading into Monday's debate on the Senate floor.

"We don't need groups from other states coming into Florida and causing trouble," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a staunch opponent of the bill. "This is proof."

Contact Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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