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Parent-Trigger Video in Florida Prompts 'Astroturf' Allegations

UPDATED AND CORRECTED

UPDATE: The Florida Senate voted down the parent-trigger legislation by a 20-20 vote on April 30. This marks the second year in a row that the Senate defeated trigger legislation. In 2012, the vote in the Senate was also 20-20.

Florida has experienced some interesting policy and political activity in the last few days with respect to "parent-trigger" legislation that is making its way through the state Senate after the House gave its approval to legislation that would allow a majority of parents to instigate structural changes at an individual school through a petition process.

A consistent criticism of the parent-trigger effort in Florida from those who think the idea is bad policy is that there hasn't been any actual parent group supporting the legislation (the Florida PTA opposes it). But just under a week ago, a group calling itself "Sunshine Parents" posted a video in which parents express support for the trigger as a way to improve their children's schools and ensure a higher number of high-quality teachers. One parent, Lilly Williams, of Coconut Grove, explicitly mentions the issue of PTAs when she argues that PTAs are more closely aligned with the interests of school employees, particularly in terms of the PTA leadership. "The PTA is not strong on parents," she says in the video.

The Florida media jumped right on it. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the video was produced by Parent Revolution, the California-based organization that has been instrumental in leading various parent-trigger efforts in the Golden State. When I spoke to the group's leader, Ben Austin, for a story earlier this year, he said that while Parent Revolution would provide support to groups in states interested in the parent trigger, "the organization wouldn't simply drop into states to take the wheel for such efforts."

But the Florida affiliate of Parents Across America, a Chicago-based group opposed to parent-trigger laws because of privatization concerns among others, slammed the video and Sunshine Parents as a fake grassroots effort propped up by Austin's organization. "No Florida parent group has come out in favor of the parent trigger, but Parent Revolution's astroturfers have staged a full-court press in the state legislature," the group states on its website.

The Times also reported that Sunshine Parents as an organization doesn't have a presence in the state capital (Tallahassee), doesn't have a website, and didn't return requests for comment.

When I talked to David Phelps, a spokesman for Parent Revolution, he acknowledged that his group produced the video and assured me that the people in the video were not actors and not paid for their work. He disputed Parents Across America's claims, saying that Sunshine Parents grew out of conversations Parent Revolution had with two groups, the Urban League of Greater Miami and Coconut Grove Cares, that were interested in supporting trigger legislation in the state.

The president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, T. Willard Fair, recently wrote an item for Parent Revolution's website that he began this way: "Those vested in the current system attack choice. They throw out buzz words such as 'privatizing education' or 'corporate reformers' or 'destroying public education.' But their opposition comes down to this: 'Poor people make poor parents.'"

Parent Revolution's work with the Urban League and Coconut Grove Cares these two groups, Phelps said, eventually led to the formation of Sunshine Parents and the video.

Phelps said Sunshine Parents would continue even if the trigger legislation becomes law, but that Parent Revolution would not fund it or take any leadership role in it. Asked about the charges of "astroturfing," he responded, "The political process, the organizing process, is that interest groups, folks who are concerned about an issue, pop up and evolve all the time."

In a separate issue, there have been questions raised about the validity of parent signatures on a petition supporting Florida's trigger legislation. Reportedly, out of 1,200 such signatures collected by StudentsFirst, former District of Columbia schools boss Michelle Rhee's group, at least three people have subsequently come forward to say they did not sign the petition. (Phelps told me that Parent Revolution is not involved with this petition.) CORRECTION: I've corrected this item to reflect that the Foundation for Florida's Future has a separate petition drive in support of the parent-trigger that is not a part of StudentsFirst's effort.

Now, on the one hand, three people out of 1,200 is not a staggering percentage statistically. But on the other hand, doubts about signatures on parent-trigger petitions themselves, as well as concerns about how they are gathered, has led to problems elsewhere for Parent Revolution. (StudentsFirst told the Times it stands by the signatures' authenticity.) If any of the signatures for this petition in support of the legislation turn out to be questionable in some way, it may create a tough environment when actual petitions to overhaul schools begin to circulate.

By the way, a Florida Senate subcommittee amended its version of the parent-trigger law under consideration to give the local school board, not the state board, ultimate power over the fate of a parent-trigger petition. If a local board decided to reject a petition, it would have to explain why, in a public meeting. While that nominally places more pressure on a local board to abide by the petition, it may not satisfy trigger advocates who think the local board shouldn't be the final authority over petitions.

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