‘Parent trigger’ bill dies in Florida Senate

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The Senate defeated a bill that would have let parents decide what to do with their children’s failing schools on a tie vote Friday, the latest and perhaps final victory for a dissident faction of the GOP caucus as the curtain came down on the 2012 legislative session.

Eight Republicans — most of them reliable members of the maverick group — joined with all 12 Senate Democrats to kill the measure (SB 1718). Republicans voting against the bill included Sens. Charlie Dean of Inverness, Nancy Detert of Venice, Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, Alan Hays of Umatilla, Dennis Jones of Seminole, Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach and Steve Oelrich of Gainesville.

The defeat of the measure – called the “parent trigger bill” by some because it would have let parents trigger certain changes, was the latest blow to the Senate leadership, which earlier this year lost a notable vote on prison privatization because of GOP opposition.

Five of the Republicans who voted against the education measure also opposed the prison bill.

And it marked at least the second setback for charter schools advocates on major bills. Another measure the schools favored, which would give them a share of construction funds from utility taxes, appeared dead as the session neared its scheduled Friday evening end.

The bill defeated Friday would have given parents 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 were to 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.

One option would be to make the school a charter school, and opponents said the measure was simply a giveaway to private companies that operate charter schools.

A close vote was expected, and critics said Thursday evening that they were confident they had the votes to kill the proposal. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, still an influential voice in Tallahassee on education matters, penned an op-ed for Friday’s Tampa Bay Times in an apparent effort to save the bill.

“This legislation doesn’t hand over the keys of public education to any one person or entity,” Bush wrote. “It gives parents a voice to demand for their kids the quality education each child deserves. This should be something we can all support.”

Gov. Rick Scott also said Friday morning that he supported the bill for the same reason.

On the floor, supporters said the measure has been successful when tried elsewhere and would have had the potential to spark more parental involvement in failing schools.

“What this bill does, at its core, is look at a system that already exists to address failing schools in our community, and say that we acknowledge the legitimacy of a parent’s voice when it comes to choosing what is already destined to be chosen,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the bill.

But opponents hammered the measure as a giveaway to charter-school companies that could twist the law’s provisions to their benefit.

“It has everything to do with laying the groundwork for the hostile corporate takeover of public schools throughout Florida — a direct attack on public education,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston.

They argued that the state should be the one to try to repair subpar schools.

“We take care of it ourselves,” said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. “And if we fail, we need to fix it. But we cannot and we should not ever sell our sovereign duty as members of this Legislature to a private entity.”

At the same time, lawmakers who opposed the bill pushed for the Legislature to give earlier reforms time to work.

“If you want to know what’s the matter with public education in Florida, look in the mirror,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. “We’ve been changing everything year after year after year, and we never give it time to gel.”

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.