Advocate Voices

School choice parents make their case – and win

charter school
In response to overcrowding concerns, the Lake County School Board approved a new charter school, Seven Lakes Preparatory Academy, in Clermont. After some advocacy by residents, the city council finalized the plans.

Tuesday night, city council members in the beautiful Central Florida town of Clermont had to decide whether to put children’s needs ahead of adults’ needs. We were told beforehand it wasn’t looking good.

For a few months, dozens of parents had attended information nights, sponsored by Florida Parent Network and run by Keith Jacobs, our manager of charter school initiatives. During these sessions, parents discussed their need for more educational options in fast-growing Lake County.

They talked about overcrowded classrooms, portables that smelled of mold and mildew, lunches scheduled at 10 a.m. because the sheer number of students required staggered, and far too early, breaks.

Parents told us about the lack of one-on-one attention their children were receiving and the low grades and behavior problems that were reported as a result.

Something had to be done.

School choice isn’t faceless. #SayTheirName

School choice programs are routinely demonized as nameless, faceless programs. Catherine Durkin Robinson of Florida Parent Network says it’s past time to #SayTheirName

As an activist, voter and resident who leans way to the left, I read the news daily and find myself asking, out loud and with more than a bit of frustration:

“Can I get a left-leaning candidate for governor who knows something about educational choice in Florida?”

Is that too much to ask?

I run the Florida Parent Network – a dedicated team of organizers who travel this state listening to thousands of parents about why they choose something other than district-run schools. We listen … to hopes and dreams, triumphs and tragedies.

We see our parents’ love for their children shining through in every choice they’ve ever made.

We help them protect and defend those choices.

I am officially inviting candidates running for governor in this year’s Democratic primary to step outside their neighborhoods, circles and worlds of privilege and meet some of our parents too.

Maybe they’d learn something.

I won’t be part of a Democratic Party that bashes school choice

Catherine Robinson (second from left): “The next time my colleagues on the left yell and scream about Republicans turning on their values to support President Trump, I would like them to look in the mirror. You, too, are turning on your values to support a union and a system that limits opportunities for the people you claim to care about the most.”

I’ve been a militant advocate, organizer and member of the Democratic Party for 30 years. A few months ago, I quit identifying as a Democrat.

It had been building within me for a while. I could no longer stomach the Democratic Party’s support for an education system that hurts so many poor and working-class families.

Democratic Party politicians have repeated their lies about educational options so long, they’ve begun to believe those lies. And they do this while so many of them can afford to move into desirable neighborhoods with good schools, or send their children to private schools.

I wonder how they sleep at night.

As far back as I can remember, I’d been raised to firmly identify and side with the poor and working class. My relatives were teamsters, union members and union organizers, Irish immigrants who fought for everything they got.

In college, I officially began my activism career by joining Students Against Apartheid. That led to gigs with Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Jerry Brown for President, Tampa AIDS Network, Florida Public Interest Research Group, and Sierra Club.

I worked as a counselor where I helped women choosing to end their pregnancies, sometimes holding their hands as they endured the most difficult moment of their lives. I marched on Washington and appeared on local talk shows, insisting that women had a right to control their reproductive lives.

I was almost arrested three times: protesting nuclear power, demanding an end to the war in Kuwait and demonstrating against animal cruelty.

For my 21st birthday, more than anything, I wanted an FBI file.

After college, I taught at alternative high schools and helped mostly young men, who had been expelled or arrested, turn their lives around. I also taught in district schools for students with special needs. All the while, I organized and advocated to repeal the Second Amendment, ensure marriage equality for all, protest armed conflict, provide for universal health care, expand voting rights, oppose private prisons and put out of business all circuses, rodeos and Sea World.

Six years ago, I met Michelle Rhee. I took a job with her national non-profit, organizing parents in several states to lobby for laws that put children’s needs ahead of adults’. Much to my surprise, Democratic friends and colleagues didn’t support this career move.

Army of choice parents is growing in strength

Parents in their orange “parent power” shirts gather outside the Miami-Dade County School Board.

Though 1.7 million students in Florida now choose their schools, their parents’ voices are sometimes ignored by policymakers. We at the Florida Parent Network are changing that, and a new partnership promises to strengthen our army.

The new pact, which combines the organizing and communications efforts of the Florida Parent Network, the Florida Charter School Alliance and Charter Schools USA, breaks new ground in the parental empowerment movement.

In other states, the movement is often splintered between those who advocate for private school scholarships and those who support charter schools – and, for that matter, those who take advantage of other educational options. This agreement signals that Florida is taking a different path.

To date, the Parent Network has drawn primarily from those who choose three different private school scholarships that last year served 139,00 students with economic disadvantage and special needs. FPN has now joined forces with charter schools, which 280,000 students chose last year.