Parents flex muscles — and Twitter fingers — in Tallahassee, and they win

Published March 20, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — It was one of the hardest-fought battles of the legislative session.

On one side: a coalition of disparate, but determined parent groups.

On the other: former Gov. Jeb Bush and the powerful school choice lobby.

With the clock about to run out, the parents overcame some of the most entrenched powers in Tallahassee and won just enough votes to kill one of Bush's priority proposals.

"They had all of that influence and millions of dollars," said Colleen Wood, a parent activist from St. Johns County. "We were just a bunch of moms."

The fight was a case study in grass roots activism fueled by astute citizens and sites like Twitter and Facebook. Some said it was an affirmation that the little guy can sometimes win, even in Tallahassee, with social media serving as the great equalizer.

"Every parent group in the state was here, or was emailing and calling legislators," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, who helped defeat the measure. "They played a key role in this debate."

The showdown took place over the so-called parent trigger bill, which would have enabled parents to convert low-performing public schools into charter schools.

Advocates, including Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said the bill would let moms and dads play a larger role in boosting student performance at chronically failing schools.

The parent groups disagreed. They argued that the bill was really intended to give for-profit charter school management companies more clout.

This wasn't their first time at the Florida Capitol.

Most of the groups first sprang up around 2008 when lawmakers made dramatic cuts to education. Few of the founding members had any experience with the legislative process.

"Our superintendent had put out a rallying cry for parents to get involved," said Kathleen Oropeza, a founder of the Orlando-based Fund Education Now. "The cuts had the potential to be catastrophic that year."

Around the same time, Wood started a group called 50th No More, a reference to how Florida funds education relative to other states.

Separate organizations called Save Duval Schools and Support Dade Schools came online, too.

At first, the groups had little contact with one another. But as they made the rounds through the Capitol, they became allies.

This year, before the session started in January, the groups came together to discuss their priorities. They set their sights on the parent trigger bill.

Wood said she and others had been watching California, where the measure became law in 2010.

"It was a mess there," she said, noting that parent efforts to turn around schools became bogged down in legal battles.

The conversation also included the Florida PTA and a handful of countywide affiliates, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas.

"We knew only parents could bring it down," said Melissa Erickson, president of the Hills­borough County Council of PTAs.

The parent groups issued a joint statement that was picked up by Florida newspapers and education blogs. And they reached out to parents across the state on Twitter and Facebook, urging them to contact their local representatives.

That call galvanized thousands.

"Each year, we improved our ability to communicate with one another," said Don Kearns, the founder of Support Dade Schools. "We learned, to some degree, how to put together a machine that could battle the lobbyists and the big money."

As the bill meandered through the House and Senate, a handful of dedicated parents made regular trips to Tallahassee to testify at committee meetings.

At times, they were frustrated. In one Senate committee meeting, lawmakers allowed only one Florida mom to speak before taking a vote.

By the last week of session, the bill had sailed through the conservative House.

But in the more moderate Senate, parents stepped up their effort, holding a well-attended news conference with several senators who opposed the bill. Later, the moms visited each senator individually.

Supporters of the parent trigger proposal, including Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future and a California nonprofit called Parent Revolution, doubled down on their efforts, too.

They issued a flurry of media releases, and brought big names like education reformer Michelle Rhee into the debate. Supporters also flew in parents from California to testify on the bill, infuriating the parents from Florida.

In the end, senators formed a bipartisan coalition and killed the proposal without a vote to spare.

The outcome was partly a reflection of a last-minute divide in the Senate after some senators led a failed campaign to oust future leadership. But it also reflected the parents' dogged efforts.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said her office had received thousands of phone calls from parents — and that the calls had made a difference.

Said Wood: "We felt like we gave our kids a real-life civics lesson."

None of the parents doubt that the bill will be back next year.

When it does, they will be ready.

"This is no longer charging at windmills," Erickson said. "Now we know we can do this."