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The Lesson of Florida

Dear Deborah,

Let us now praise the public school parents of Florida.

They organized to oppose a bill known as the "Parent Trigger" or "Parent Empowerment." Under this proposed law, if 51 percent of the parents in a public school signed a petition, they could take over the school and decide whether to close it or turn it over to a charter management organization. The bill was wrapped in a deceptive and alluring packaging. Who could resist the bold idea of giving parents the power to take control of their public school?

Well, it turned out that Florida parents had become savvy after watching their elected officials endorse one bill after another to advance the interests of charter schools and for-profit entrepreneurs. They figured out that the real beneficiaries of this legislation would be charter management corporations, not parents or children.

Florida is a state with almost 500 charter schools, including many for-profit charters and for-profit cyber charters. Like the charter sector as a whole, charters in Florida vary widely in quality. By now, parent organizations know that they are not a silver bullet, and they have no secret sauce for better education.

One reason that Florida parents wised up was that the local press has been vigilant in reporting the dubious activities of some charter operators and the uneven performance of charters, as well as the exclusion of special education students. Parents realized that charters face the same challenges as public schools, and they did not wish to give the entrepreneurs another avenue to take over the public schools.

When the high-pressure campaign for the legislation began, the big guns were rolled out. The proposal had the strong backing of Gov. Rick Scott, former governor Jeb Bush, and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Since the state legislature is dominated by Republicans, parent activists were sure they didn't stand a chance.

But they persisted, and they descended on Tallahassee. There were moms and dads from across the state, PTAs, and parent groups like Testing is not Teaching, Fund Education Now, and 50th No More. Supporters of the bill brought in spokespeople from the California group Parent Revolution, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation. Not a single Florida parent group spoke in favor of the bill.

To almost everyone's surprise, when the Florida Senate voted, it was a tie, 20-20. Eight Republicans and 12 Democrats joined to oppose the legislation. Even one of the sponsors of the bill voted against it.

No one was more surprised and elated than the parents. To their astonishment, they won. Some of the legislators who supported the parents are term limited and will retire. Next year another battle looms as parents struggle to defend public education against corporate interests.

David knocked down Goliath. Democracy lives. The good guys won. The lesson for all of us: What happened in Florida proves that citizens who take action can overcome the power of big money.


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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...