Author Archive | Catherine Durkin Robinson

Hearing from the parents behind parental choice

The parents behind parental choice are joining every aspect of the movement to remind us: It's about their kids.

The parents behind parental choice are joining every aspect of the movement to remind us: It’s about their kids.

I spend a good deal of my time at work reaching out to parents across the state of Florida. As a grassroots organizer for Step Up For Students (which co-hosts this blog), I value my relationships with parents, grandparents, and guardians who have chosen to enroll their children in our program. They inform my work and I find great value in hearing their stories and concerns. Because of them, I have the greatest job on the planet – empowering parents, encouraging them to use their voice to advocate for their children and the right to choose the school that best fits their needs.

Sometimes I have to attend summits and conferences. This has value, too, especially if sessions are held to improve techniques and tools for organizers like me. Unfortunately, most education conferences are held for other reasons – to discuss policy and issues, and to thank lawmakers for their courage and support.

Again, there is value there. But it’s not really for me.

Therefore, I’ve been on a quest of sorts for a few years now. A quest to bring more parent and teacher advocates to these summits and conventions. I’ve written a few columns for this blog on the subject and have called and emailed and called again to national foundations and think tanks, encouraging them to add some time in each of their summit agendas to include moms and dads and teachers. I’ve said we need to involve more people who are affected by these policies and issues and we must seek their counsel, listen to their concerns, and thank them for their courage and support.

Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now were the first group to say yes.

Last week, DFER and ERN held a summit called Camp Philos in beautiful Lake Placid, NY, where advocates from all over the country gathered to talk about education reform and parental choice. I was thrilled to hear speaker after speaker talk about transferring power from the status quo to families and educators. People who share my political views talked about the importance of grassroots support and parental involvement in everything from mission statements to action plans and every other aspect of this movement.

It’s significant that DFER and ERN set aside 90 minutes for a plenary session/panel discussion about and by parents and teachers. I arranged for the panelists to fly in from Florida and Idaho, and moderated as we talked about their experiences advocating for their children. We discussed ways that organizations can reach out to and involve more parents, and what Democrats can do in particular to help moms and dads understand their options and access what they need.

My panelists told their audience to listen more and build relationships. They said if organizers reach out to just a few parents and tell them what’s happening in their state legislatures and how to get involved, they’ll take it from there. Moms will reach out to other moms and dads will reach out to other dads. All organizers need is a few parents to get many more on board.

It worked in Florida. Continue Reading →

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Advice to faith-based schools: highlight your success stories

I often find myself in situations where I’m the lone advocate for a particular ideal. At Republican functions, I’m usually the only Democrat. If I’m at a gathering of Democrats, I’m often the only one who will speak in favor of education reform.

Religious schools are educating thousands of children effectively. It’s no one’s fault but their own if few people know about it.

Religious schools are educating thousands of children effectively. It’s no one’s fault but their own if few people know about it.

When I attend education events with like-minded Democrats, I advocate for vouchers and, later that evening, buy my own drinks at happy hour.So it should surprise no one that I attended a summit, hosted by the American Center for School Choice, where the audience consisted of faith-based education leaders from all over the country.

I am not religious. In fact, I have been known to reject the whole idea of organized spirituality and have, on more than one occasion, championed doubt and reason instead. I’ve even quoted Bill Maher who once denounced faith because it “makes a virtue out of not thinking.”

Yet there I was, amidst faith-based leaders, discussing the excellent work they do with children and schools. At several points in the discussion we lamented that, in some areas, this work is being threatened. Whether due to the growing numbers of charter schools or rising tuition rates, enrollment in religious schools is down and some schools are even being forced to close.

This is tragic for many neighborhoods where there is no secular solution to take its place.

No wonder then that many leaders are eager to see tax-credit scholarship and voucher programs come to their neck of the woods. When discussion centered on ways to garner public support for such programs, I eagerly listened to their ideas.

But the ensuing discussion was disappointing. They wanted to focus on statistics, parent empowerment and the importance of teaching God-given morals and values in a setting that isn’t allowed in secular or public schools.

While persuasive to many in the room, those arguments simply won’t work with much of the larger public. So I took a deep breath and raised my hand. Continue Reading →

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If privatization is bad, why don’t school choice critics target IB?

Robinson: Parents care about results. They usually have one concern - is their child learning and thriving? If so, you won’t find many complaints. Even if the CEO responsible for the curriculum is making a profit.

Robinson: Parents care about results. They usually have one concern – is their child learning and thriving? If so, you won’t find many complaints.
Even if the CEO responsible for the curriculum is making a profit.

One of the arguments I hear from people determined to limit school choice options is that private companies shouldn’t be involved in the business of educating our kids. Activists against accountability rail against corporations that administer tests. Charter school opponents argue that for-profit companies are trying to profit from our children. Anti-choice proponents label those of us involved in school choice as conspirators in an effort to privatize public education.

The truth is, numerous companies conduct legitimate and valuable business with our public schools. These entities produce textbooks, assessments, curriculum guides, software, and so much more. Schools could not effectively educate students without these supplemental tools and supplies.

But for the sake of argument, let’s put aside those facts and consider this:

Like thousands of other kids across the country, my own children benefit from the involvement of a huge, international conglomerate, an important player in one of this country’s most popular magnet programs – the International Baccalaureate program.

According to its website, “the IB works with 3,665 schools in 146 countries to offer the four IB programmes to approximately 1,133,000 students.”

How’s that for outside involvement?

My children attend an IB program at Williams Middle School in Tampa, Fla. I’ve been both a member of the school’s PTA and an elected officer for the past three years. As such, I’ve never heard a single parent complain about the fact that a foreign company is operating in Hillsborough County schools, nor have I heard anyone complain about lack of local control. In fact, parents aren’t complaining at all. They are lining up to get their kids into the program. Many don’t even know the background of this Geneva-based organization and even fewer seem to care.

All they know is the program works for their kids.

That’s what matters. Continue Reading →

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Florida Shine Awards recognize private school educators and advocates

Gov. Rick Scott, center, recognizes the contributions of educators and advocates during a recent Florida Cabinet meeting. From left, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Andrea Sherman, Glen Gilzean, Merili Wyatt, Sue Mattson, Lauri Curri and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Gov. Rick Scott, center, recognizes private school teachers and education advocates during a recent Florida Cabinet meeting. From left, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Andrea Sherman, Glen Gilzean, Merili Wyatt, Sue Mattson, Lauri Curri and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Florida’s Shine Awards for public school teachers are now casting a spotlight on private school teachers as well.

The breakthrough came last week during a Florida Cabinet meeting, as Gov. Rick Scott honored four private school educators for their contributions to learning. Shine Awards are presented by the governor to Floridians who have had a positive impact on children through education. The awards typically are given to public school teachers who’ve shown creativity and resourcefulness when encouraging students to do their best and learn. However, this most recent group of educators are private school teachers.

“Education is critical to providing opportunities for Florida’s future generations,” Gov. Scott said. “That’s why it’s so important that we recognize the contributions of educators who are building a Florida that provides limitless opportunities for our children.”

Including private schools in the celebration is one way to acknowledge that excellent teachers in a variety of settings deserve honor and praise. It is also another way to break down unnecessary barriers between types of schools as we rightfully place the emphasis on all those who teach our children.

In addition to being outstanding educators, the teachers recognized last week also have been instrumental in an empowerment project for low-income parents whose students receive Florida Tax Credit Scholarships to attend private schools. The project is centered around a “Learning Compact” between schools and parents that is intended to strengthen the relationship so they can focus together on the academic progress of the child.

The following teachers were recognized: Continue Reading →

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Florida private school “voucher” parents join PTA

When Step Up parents talked about their personal circumstances, the scholarship program stopped being this abstract idea and started becoming something much more real.

When Step Up parents talked about their personal circumstances, the scholarship program stopped being this abstract idea and started becoming something much more real.

Earlier this month, the Florida PTA held its annual convention with at least 20 new members in attendance: parents of children who receive tax credit scholarships to attend private schools.

Many of them took time off from one or two jobs to attend. And in doing so, they participated in what is, if not a historic first, certainly very unusual – private school inclusion in an organization that  historically has been devoted to public schools.

Who knows where this will lead. But good things can happen when people who are supposedly on different sides of an issue actually meet face to face. Even when the issue is something like private school “vouchers.”

As an organizer for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the scholarships (and co-hosts this blog) my job was to attend the convention as well and facilitate a meeting between PTA leaders and scholarship parents.

One of the first things we all noticed was the PTA’s platform, included in the tote bag that participants received. The platform explained that while the PTA opposes vouchers in all its forms, including tax credit scholarships, it urges the Legislature to impose strict eligibility requirements and accountability measures on all private schools participating in these programs.

“What does this mean?” one mother asked me.

“It means they’re against our program, but believe private schools should administer the same standardized tests, like FCAT,” I said.

It’s easy to be against a program you don’t know about or really understand. So, I told our parents, go to the sessions, visit the vendors, and attend receptions. “Meet with these folks and make sure they put a face to this program,” I said. “You’re our ambassadors and I’m sure this weekend will lead to understanding and a better relationship between Step Up For Students and the PTA.” Continue Reading →

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School choice by moving van

Editor’s note: Most discussions of school choice today are focused on newer options – charters, vouchers, tax credit scholarships – that are intended to empower parents without the ability or means to access the right school. But Catherine Robinson, a Tampa mother and assistant director of outreach for the Step Up For Students scholarship program, writes that old-fashioned methods can work as well.

School choice time again with the Robinsons.

School choice time again with the Robinsons.

I’ve been through this before. Many times.

Searching for the right school for my children has never been easy, but since we all know the importance of education in determining a good future, every few years, I skip some happy hours and dedicate myself to finding the best choice for my twin sons.

Ten years ago, Jacob and Zachary were ready for preschool and over the course of several months, I researched local providers. I consulted trusted friends, official “studies” and interviewed administrators in ways that put Senate confirmation hearings to shame.

I finally decided on a school 45 minutes away from our home. Quite a drive, but my husband deferred to me in this area, as I was a teacher at the time, the way I deferred to him, as the father, when deciding which coaches to ignore at T-ball practice.

Our children did well in preschool and precedent was established.

A few short years later, in preparation for their elementary years, I conducted similar research. I looked at school grades, asked around, and visited facilities at drop off and pick up times before choosing a wonderful public school, this time only a half-hour drive from our home.

The Big Recession threw us some unexpected curve balls and we relocated to Colorado Springs. Where it snows.  In May. Within a year, we high-tailed it back to Tampa. This was 2008, the height of the economic crisis, and so we rented a home rather than buy.

I didn’t realize then what a blessing that would be. Continue Reading →

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School choice parents to rally at Florida Capitol

About 1,000 people are expected for the rally in Tally.

About 1,000 people are expected for the rally in Tally.

“Where are the parents who support school choice?”

“Where are the parents who support parental empowerment?”

“Where are the parents whose children benefit from education reform?”

These are typical questions from traditional parenting groups, groups that sometimes say they represent Florida parents in all educational matters. They have to ask the whereabouts of moms and dads of more than 1.5 million schoolchildren of choice, because such parents don’t tend to be in their membership files.

To the extent these choice parents are low-income and single moms who choose options such as the tax credit scholarship, they do indeed tend to be less visible in the political sphere.

Get ready, because that’s changing.

Early Wednesday morning, families from all over Florida, from Miami’s inner city neighborhoods to rural Pasco County, will board buses with their children and teachers and travel five to 10 hours to get to Tallahassee for School Choice Day. Organizers expect more than a thousand participants to gather and show lawmakers, traditional parenting groups, and everyone else the real face of parental school choice.

They won’t look like right-wing corporations. There’s a good bet they will be racially and economically diverse. In other words, they will probably look like you and me. Continue Reading →

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