Outside Republican convention, Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee use film to push parent trigger education policy

08/31/12 Janelle Irwin
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Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush used the Republican National Convention as a platform to garner support for so-called parent trigger legislation. During a panel discussion at the Straz Center for the Arts Tuesday, Bush said states need massive overhauls to their education systems.

“We have a third of our kids that are college or career ready despite spending more per student than any country in the world. We can say, ‘U.S.A. number one’, we can be proud that we won all these medals and we can brag about country, but the foundation of our country is not just cracking, it’s coming apart because two thirds of our kids won’t be able to be successful.”

Bush spoke to a crowded auditorium of Republicans after watching a movie called Won’t Back Down It’s about two women who try to take over a failing school to make it better. It echoes the parent trigger legislation that failed in Florida this year. Opponents argue it’s an effort to funnel public money into private hands. Former Washington, D.C., schools head Michelle Rhee dominated the panel discussion. She started a non-profit called Students First that advocates for education reform.

“People who favor charter schools or vouchers or accountability are – we want to privatize education is what they’re saying…when that is absolutely not the motivation for this movie, behind charter schools or anything like that. So, we have to fight really hard against that polarization by coming together and insuring that this is a bi-partisan effort.”

Elizabeth Barron opposes Rhee’s dose of education reform.

“Because you’re taking money away from the public education system and you’re putting it into other people’s hands and I want to know who’s accountable for that.”

Her argument is one former Florida Governor Jeb Bush disagrees with.

“This is a question of protecting the status quo based on the economic interests of the adults.”

As a Democrat, Barron was a needle in a haystack. She’s a librarian at the University of Tampa.

“I believe there is a place for private education, but it is not with public funds. I went to private schools my whole life growing up. It wasn’t until college that I went to a public university.”

She argued the reform people like Rhee and Bush advocate end in teachers having to spend too much time preparing students for tests. And many of them are geared to prepare kids for college. But Barron said not all kids are cut out for advanced education.

“I think we need to give more money into vocational education and trade schools and if we give more of our children a future, whether it’s as a plumber, an electrician, some type of trade, I think it is a future.”

The movie epitomized and glorified the conservative-leaning education reform concept. It showed the bad tempered teacher who couldn’t get fired because she was tenured. In a story of good verses evil, she was the evil. Education reform activist Rhee said parents need to get more political if anything is going to be done about it.

“Because there are laws in your state that dictate that once the teacher has tenure, they can’t get fired. So, you have to fight against that law; you have to be putting pressure on your legislators to do that.”

And Florida has already done away with teacher tenure. It was Governor Rick Scott’s first bill signing, but the push isn’t done. Melody Jackson is a professor at Georgia Tech.

“So I see the results of our lower level education coming into our schools and our concern is that our American children are not keeping up with the rest of the world. Fifty percent of our applicants and many times our acceptances – especially into our graduate programs – are from foreign nationals, international students. So I think that allowing people to have a choice of schools that if they’re not satisfied with the education that their students are getting that they would be able to change that.”

Jackson said if schools have a problem with changing the system, they should just do better.

“It will give schools an incentive to be better. It introduces competition into the school system which right now there is none.”

Rhee said parent involvement is also a component of student success. But she talked about three incidents where parents were actually punished for caring.

“So what did we do with each of those parents? The first group of students we told them, ‘sorry, there is no room for your kids at this school so you’re out of luck.’ The second group of parents [were] harassed, they were threatened with deportation, it was absolution awful what happened with that group of parents and the last lady, we threw her in jail.”

Rhee said the movie will also be shown at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte.

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