Opponents say they can stop “parent trigger” bill

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A raucous and emotional debate over a measure that would allow parents to “trigger” the takeover of their local school by for-profit corporations exposed raw nerves in the Senate and left the future of the bill murky entering the last day of the 2012 legislative session, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Opponents of the proposal (SB 1718) said they felt confident that they had the 20 votes needed to kill the measure by forcing a tie in the 40-seat chamber. But a series of vote on amendments at times raised as many questions as answers about which side would prevail if and when the bill gets a final vote.

A dozen Republican senators voted against the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, on at least one of the six amendments where roll-call votes were taken. Six of those voted opposite Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, while one went the other way on three of the measures.

If Democrats hold firm — as they did on each of the votes Thursday — opponents would need votes from eight of the 28 Republicans in the Senate to kill the bill.

At the same time, supporters of the measure prevailed on four of the six roll call votes and several voice votes — the latter called by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who supports the bill.

But Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said critics of the bill stood up against “the forces of power” in the form of hostile rulings and procedures and proved that the bill was in trouble.

“We’re there,” Dockery said. “I predict the vote will be 20-20 tomorrow.”

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican who is among the proposal’s sharpest critics, said she believed “it’s a good possibility” that the votes already exist to beat back the measure.

Another critic, Republican Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice, said she saw the current vote as a tie but wasn’t sure the opponents had locked up 20 votes.

“I think we have a lot of people on the fence that are legitimately listening to the arguments,” Detert said.

But at least one Republican known to sometimes break with her party’s leadership, and who voted with opponents on two amendments, said late Thursday she was leaning toward voting for the bill — based at least in part on the amendments that did pass.

“I think we’ve done everything that we can” to improve the process, Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico said.

At issue is a bill that would give parents sweeping new powers over the schools their children attend. Parents could petition their school board to adopt a specific turnaround option for any school that drew an “F” on state report cards for two straight years. If a majority of parents sign the petition, the district would either have to implement the plan or submit both the parents’ plan and its own choice to the State Board of Education.

Supporters say the measure has been successful when tried elsewhere and has the potential to spark more parental involvement in failing schools.

“These are just parents, parents that just want an opportunity for their child to go to a better school,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Critics say that for-profit charter school companies could manipulate the process for their own gain.

During debate over the amendments Thursday, the two sides clashed over the process that would surround how petition drives would work and how the schools would be operated if they were converted.

One of the most heated clashes surrounded a pair of amendments — one by Benacquisto, one by Dockery — dealing with attempts to essentially bribe parents to sign petitions. While both barred the practice, Dockery’s would have provided criminal penalties. Benacquisto’s passed despite complaints that it wouldn’t effectively stop the practice.

“Anybody who is naive enough, naive enough in this process to think that somebody’s not going to offer either money or rewards or gifts or something, hasn’t been around very, very long,” Lynn said.

Supporters of the bill argued that stiff penalties went too far.

“To criminalize a parent who simply wants to do the right thing by their child is wrong,” Benacquisto said.

In an emotional speech, Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, slammed that as hypocrisy, saying the amendments were semblable to an elections bill approved by Republicans last year that cracked down on third-party voter-registration groups in the name of stopping fraud.

“But now it’s overreaching? It’s undemocratic?” Smith bellowed. “Are you kidding me?”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.