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Politics

FACT CHECK: Parent Empowerment Foes Inflating Membership

May 16, 2013 - 6:00pm

Two weeks after the 2013 Florida Legislature finished its regular session, opponents of Parent Empowerment are still crowing that the bill's defeat represented a victory for 1 million parent activists. There's just one problem: that figure appears to be pulled out of thin air.

You did it! You defeated Parent Trigger [i.e., Parent Empowerment] for a second year something no one in the country thought possible, reads a May 15 email from Linda Kobert, one of three founders of Fund Education Now, a leading opponent of the legislation. Parents from Tennessee to California watched as a million Florida parents took action against a Parent Trigger scheme never meant to help us, our children or their schools.

That's not the first time the million Florida parents figure has been thrown about by the organization. Its website's action page on Parent Empowerment claims that [i]n two short years, our alliance has grown to over 1 million parents.

Sunshine State News put in multiple calls and emails to Fund Education Now, to get the source of this figure; co-founder Kathleen Oropeza finally responded with a text message:

Pls [sic] refer to the extensive list of FL parent groups in our press releases. That should do it. Thx [sic].

It's unclear which FL parent groups Oropeza intended to refer SSN to. Quite possibly, she meant the following 11 organizations (including her own), which she claimed, in a March editorial in the Gainesville Sun, represented [a] rock-solid alliance of nearly a million parents: the NAACP, Fund Education Now, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Florida PTA, the Florida Gifted Network, Parents Across America FL, Testing Is Not Teaching, Marions United for Public Education, Support Dade Schools, 50th No More, and Citizens for Strong Schools.

About 2.7 million students are enrolled in the state's K-12 public schools. Do these 11 organizations really count 1 million distinct parents of public school children among their members?

The only one of these groups that publishes its membership figures is the Florida PTA, which claims 300,000 members. Butthese members are not all parents. According to the PTA's website, any Floridian -- "parents, educators, students, mentors and other citizens who actively support our mission" --is eligible to join the group and receive a membership card.

Oropeza did not return SSN's follow-up inquiries into how many members her own organization has. It includes at least seven: the three founders, and four regional directors.

Additionally, two of the entities listed by Oropeza in her Sun editorial are actually the same group: Testing Is Not Teaching is in fact the Florida affiliate of Parents Across America.

None of the remaining nine actually, eight organizations appear to publish their membership numbers; SSN contacted each of them, and the only one that responded was the League of United Latin American Citizens, which admitted that it does not maintain those figures.

So, where exactly does Fund Education Now get its 1 million parents figure from? And for that matter, is it 1 million, nearly a million, or over 1 million, as her coalition has claimed for itself in at least three different instances?

They're not telling. A nonreaction from an outfit that's consistently accused Parent Empowerment proponents of overstating popular parental support for their legislation.

Jaryn Emhof, communications director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a leading advocate for Parent Empowerment, suggests that the number of public school parents for or against this type of legislation is an irrelevant consideration.

It's not about numbers, it is about every single parent who has a child in a K-12 school having a place at the table when decisions are being made about their schools, particularly when they're in a failing school, she tells SSN. There are some parents who currently are satisfied, are happy with their school system, are happy with where their children are going to school, and that's great. Those parents who aren't should still have a voice.

Parent Empowerment, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would have allowed parents of children who attend failing schools to petition their school board to choose one of several turnaround options, including converting it into a charter school. The bill was not a true parent trigger, as opponents routinely characterized it, because the petition would have had no binding effect on government officials.

Stargel has said she will not be reviving the bill in 2014.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

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