“Parent trigger” legislation rammed through Senate committee

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Legislation that would give parents more ability to determine how to make over a failing school was rammed through a Senate committee on Saturday, a likely preview of a contentious floor fight over charter schools, unions and parental support, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

By a 13-7 vote, the Senate Budget Committee on Saturday approved SB 1718, the so called “parent trigger” bill. The most controversial element would allow parents of a failing school to dictate recovery strategies, including the use of for-profit charters, if a majority of them sign petitions to do so.

Backers say the measure is a response to a recalcitrant school system that is slow to change and deaf to the needs of communities. The bill is being championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

‘What is to be afraid of having parents involved in their children’s education?,” asked Senate sponsor Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers. “Why? Why do we fight so hard against parents standing up to say I would like you to consider this?”

Critics say the measure represents yet another nail driven at public education and the teacher unions by backers of for-profit charter school companies that lack the same accountability standards of traditional public schools.

“I have four children who graduated from public schools. They all have master’s degrees,” said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami. “…I don’t know what problem you have.”

The proposal ramps up accountability standards on a number of fronts, but the most controversial measure, by far, deals with failing schools.

The provision says once a school earns an “F,” if improvement doesn’t happen within a year, parents could dictate what will happen, if 51 percent of them agree.

They still would be limited to certain options laid out in federal law, and the plan would be subject to Department of Education approval.

Among their options, parents could force the school district to transfer students to other schools; close the school and re-open it as a charter school with a new governing board running it; or contract with an outside management group to run it – essentially privatize it.

Evident Saturday was that the measure is a top priority of Haridopolos and other Senate leaders. Not normally a member of the committee, Senate Majority Leader and incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, took a high profile role Saturday, as did prospective future presidents Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

Forced to vote on the bill before the meeting adjourned at 10 a.m., some committee members said the haste by which such a controversial measure was being considered was inappropriate and unnecessary.

“We are playing around with the lives of children in our schools,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. “And it’s time to stop.”

The idea for the parent trigger comes from California, where two years ago that state’s legislature passed a similar bill giving parents in failing schools a majority vote on whether to turn it into a charter school.

“When you have parents involved in their child’s education, it inures to the success of the child,” said Mike Trujillo, a representative of Parent Revolution, which spearheaded California efforts. “What this is, is a vehicle by which parents can be involved in their local school community.”

Union representatives say it’s too early to tell if the California effort has made any long-term gain. What is apparent is that it has been controversial and litigious, pitting families against each other.

“There has been so much animosity that it does more damage in the long run than the improvement they thought they were trying to create,” said Jeff Wright, public advocacy director for the Florida Education Association.

Improvement in a failing school requires the cooperation of parents, the local business community and local government to put forth a matrix of surrounding services from after-school programs to nutritional support and mentoring. Wright said. The bill, as it stands, does none of that.

“This simply allows a private management company to own your school for a time period,” Wright said. “Once they get whatever they get out of it , like profits maybe, then they leave and the public school is held accountable.”

But Budget Committee chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the underlying impetus behind the charter school movement has been the perception by parents that school officials have not addressed their needs.

In his area, Alexander said charters schools have thrived while the traditional public school has plenty of empty space.

“I’ve been involved in charter conversion efforts and seen firsthand how districts really don’t listen to parents,” Alexander said. “In many districts, they do a very miserable job of reforming schools.”

The bill now travels to the Senate floor. The House bill, HB 1191, passed that chamber earlier this week on an 80-34 vote.

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.