Story & fotos by José Pérez
Last week, a first-time partnership between different Urban League chapters across Florida kicked off a series of town hall style meetings to discuss an increasingly talked-about aspect of education both in the state and nationwide. The “We Care” campaign started the first trio of a scheduled eight fori being held in cities in South, Central and North Florida. Organized by local chapters of the Urban League and proponents of "school choice," The campaign had its first meeting at the Urban League of Miami amid a packed house of concerned residents, curious citizens, and members of the United Teachers of Dade.
The Miami meeting was followed on consecutive nights by meetings in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale respectively.
While the panelists assembled for the fori were fairly consistent, the tone and timbre of each meeting was markedly different. Whereas the Palm Beach edition was quieter and the Fort Lauderdale forum was reserved and mostly light-hearted, the Miami meeting was contentious and inflamed as members of the audience, which was comprised mostly of teachers, and panelists clashed verbally and ideologically over each side’s perspective on the future of public education in Florida.
T. Willard Fair, long-time head of Miami’s Urban League, opened the meeting with a outline for not just the first meeting but all 8 events throughout the state. “The recipe for survival happens to be education,” said Fair who pointed out that “this is the first time that all 8 Urban Leagues” from Florida have coordinated efforts in such a manner.
Another panelist was Isha Haley, Executive Director of Black Floridians CARE. Haley’s organization is focused, she said, on leadership in charter schools. “We want to prepare black leaders for charter schools.”
“Leadership starts in our community,” said Haley who added that she has been “building this organization for a year and a half” but its origins actually date back over fifteen years earlier. According to state records, Black Floridians CARE is the amended name of Floridians for School Choice. Fair has been on the Board for the corporation since 2004.
Nationwide, the Urban League has been supportive of charter schools dating back to 2000 when the National Urban League expressed its support of a pro-charter school bill in Washington State. The Urban League has charter schools in Madison, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh.
As the tension in the Miami meeting escalated, Haley insisted that “we’re not here to advocate for any particular option” yet the composition of the panel was telling. Fedrick Ingram, President United Teachers of Dade, observed that “we have a large private interest here. On this stage there all types of charter school interests.”
At the Fort Lauderdale meeting, Haley restated her nonprofit’s goal of “creating talent pipeline” for black leaders of charter schools. At this meeting, she mentioned that plans were under way for a proposed T. Willard Fair Fellowship which would identify 15 fellows to learn the business of and be groomed for opening and operating black-owned charter schools. Haley and others were mum on the details promising, instead, more details leading up the expected launch of the program in January 2014
Troy Bell of StudentsFirst, shed light on Haley’s and Fair’s focus. Bell said that there are currently 5,000 charter schools in the United States. Only 3% of those charter schools are black-owned and/or –operated but 60% of the students enrolled in charter schools nationwide are black.
Another panelist chosen for the We Care Campaign was Glen Gilzean from Step Up for Students. “We provide scholarships” to private schools, Gilzean said, “for those families that want a religious education.”
Antonio White, a teacher and member of the UTD present at the Miami meeting, was not happy with what he was hearing. “I don’t want my public dollars to go to private companies.”
At the Fort Lauderdale meeting, Shirley Baker asked Gilzean about the source of Step Up for Students’ funding. “We raise the money through private donations” in exchange for tax credits, he replied.
Federal tax documents from 2011 indicate that Step Up for Students spent $178,207 in on “lobbying” expenses.
Gilzean then touted a benefit of the private school option. “Charters have to go through the school district. The State of Florida is really friendly to private schools.” He added that there is “no oversight…you can open up your own school in 30 days.”
The biggest source of tension seemed to be ideological.
In his opening remarks in Fort Lauderdale, Bell mentioned “the founder of our organization” but did not actually say her name. When the name of StudentsFirst’s founder, the controversial Michelle Rhee, was mentioned by White during the Miami meeting, Fair refused to indulge it saying that she was not present at the meeting. Books with her name and photograph, however, were prominently displayed at a StudentFirst information table at the Fort Lauderdale meeting.
In an article published in late 2012 by Salon.com, StudentsFirst “backed” 105 candidates for political office that election and over 85% were conservatives. According to income tax returns filled by StudentsFirst in Pennsylvania in 2011, “the purpose of Students First…is to support political candidates who are running for statewide office…who support charter schools and voucher programs.”
Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study was cited by organizers on one side of the issue and supporters of public education on the opposite side. “Only 17% of charter schools do better than public schools,” said Catherine Kim Owens, a parent in attendance, referencing the CREDO report. Bell disagreed saying that the study showed that that figure was only for the first three years that a charter school is open.
Former Broward School Superintendent Jim Notter, who abruptly retired in 2011 in the aftermath of a grand jury charges of rampant corruption during his tenure, was also present at the Fort Lauderdale meeting. Notter, who is also a member of the Urban League of Broward County’s Board of Directors, was visibly impressed by the discussion and enthusiastically offered his support to Haley “I’m available to you because you have a solution.” Before the meeting adjourned, Notter also commented on another benefit to school choice. “You don’t have to deal with teachers’ unions.”
One teacher who did not want to give her name she she left the Miami meeting “feeling empty.”
“What purpose did this meeting serve?”
The teacher, who said she came to the forum trying to find out “what resources are there for the parents” said she was disappointed in the event. “I could’ve been at home grading papers.”
*To read the article as it was printed in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.