A “parent-trigger” bill pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush was among several classroom measures Thursday that cleared the Florida House over opposition from Democrats who warned against the expanding role of for-profit schools and online companies.
The trigger bill, recast after failing last year in the Senate, was approved 68-51 by the House following free-swinging debate.
Democrats accused Republicans of looking to help companies seeking taxpayer dollars by taking over failing Florida schools. GOP members fired back, accusing opponents of merely being toadies for the teachers’ union, which is fighting the measure (CS/HB 867).
“I’m glad everybody has read the union’s talking points,” Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the bill’s sponsor, told Democrats. “But most of your comments have nothing to do with the bill.”
Several Democrats lashed out at the legislation, saying it manipulates parents with children in failing schools into thinking they are gaining more control with authority to petition school boards for change.
“When the trigger is pulled, the only people with a voice are private management companies,” said Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa. “I urge you to support our public schools and vote against this bill.”
Along with the parent-trigger legislation, the House approved a measure (CS/HB 7009) that would allow high-performing charter schools to expand without having to go back to school boards for approval. Charters also could gain access to unused space owned by the district, under some circumstances.
Another bill (CS/HB 7029) changes education funding so that more private digital companies could compete for public school dollars with the state-financed Florida Virtual School.
Democrats and Republicans were sharply divided over the bills. But the parent-trigger legislation drew the most heated debate – with the partisan lines enhanced by Bush and his Foundation for Florida’s Future being leading proponents of the effort.
This time around, the measure also looks like more of a sure bet in the Senate.
The legislation allows parents in some two dozen schools in Florida that have received “F” grades to petition their school board for a turnaround plan.
Democrats warn that while only a small number of schools currently qualify, more than 150 schools may soon be eligible for takeover when a new, stricter testing plan takes effect.
Under the proposal, students could be reassigned to other schools, the school could be closed, overhauled or turned over to an outside company to run as a charter school.
The local school board’s decision also could be overruled by the State Board of Education, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott.
“This meaningful piece of legislation empowers our moms and dads by allowing for a majority of parents to sign a petition to transform their child’s failing public school,” said Nikki Lowrey, Florida state director of Students First, an advocacy organization founded by national education reformer Michelle Rhee.
“Now, parents with a child trapped in a failing school are one step closer to having the necessary leverage to demand change and hold schools accountable for the needs of our students,” said Lowrey, who is also a former Bush aide.
But the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, blasted the measure as a trick that is aimed at favoring companies which donated heavily to Republican campaigns last fall.
“We’re disappointed that the Florida House chose to ignore the voices of Florida parents, teachers and school administrators and pass this deceptive bill,” said FEA President Andy Ford. He added, “It’s all about creating an easy pathway so that for-profit charter operators can coerce parents into handing over our neighborhood public schools.”
Charter schools are publicly funded, nonsectarian schools that operate under a contract, or charter, with local school boards. A governing board, appointed or selected, manages them, with many schools focused on accepting low-performing students.
Charter schools are funded like other public schools in Florida – receiving taxpayer dollars based on the number of full-time students enrolled. But they are exempt from many regulations governing public schools.
There are 575 charter schools operating in Florida – more than double the number existing a decade ago. In Palm Beach County, 40 charter schools operate, up from 35 last year.
Palm Beach County PTA President Jen Martinez said the state’s parents’ organizations oppose the legislation.
Martinez, who looked on as the House debated the bill, said she was pleased that some Republicans broke ranks to vote against the measure.
“People are seeing the real fact that, as one representative said, “education shouldn’t be for sale,’” Martinez said.
Martinez said PTAs and other public school advocates are wary of what they foresee developing under the bill: Private companies paying petition gatherers to collect parent signatures – and positioning themselves to draw taxpayer dollars running the new schools.
“You could easily see that happening,” she said.