A year after a bipartisan group of Florida senators blocked it, a controversial “parent trigger” bill is back without some of the provisions that made it more palatable to critics and with a new state Senate almost certain to sign off on the measure.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush is pushing the plan, backed by Gov. Rick Scott and GOP legislative leaders, which would allow parents to take over failing schools and convert them into charter schools. Bush, on a national book tour, has been the subject of wide speculation as a possible presidential contender in 2016.
The concept is gaining traction nationally with the support of conservative think tanks, including Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future and Foundation for Excellence in Education, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heartland Institute, advocating for school choice alternatives to traditional public education. The Georgia House of Representatives this week approved a similar bill.
But critics, including the state Parent Teacher Association, many Florida school districts and the state teachers union, object that the plan is less about giving parents more control over their children’s education and more about promoting for-profit charter schools.
The Florida House Choice and Innovation Committee approved the measure along party lines on Thursday. The GOP-dominated House approved a similar bill last year, and Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said recently that Democrats do not have the votes to block it this year. Scott, a charter school champion, said last year he would sign the measure into law.
“We’re creating a new political process,” said bill sponsor Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, a lawyer. “If the current political process were working, you wouldn’t have F schools that are consistently F schools…That system isn’t working.”
Under current federal law, school boards must implement a school turnaround program for schools with an “F” grade that would convert the school to a district-managed turnaround school; reassign students to another school; close the school and reopen it as one or more charter schools; contract with a private management firm; or a hybrid of turnaround options. If the school’s grade does not go up by at least one letter grade within a year, that turnaround plan goes into effect.
The bill (HB 876) would give parents the ability to choose the turnaround program. If the school board does not agree, the state education department must select the option they deem would give the school the best chances of improving. The parent trigger would require the signatures of a majority of parents at the school.
The bill bans per-signature payment for the turnaround but does not prohibit not-for-profit companies from hiring signature gatherers.
Twenty-five schools in Florida, most of them elementary schools with a majority of minority students, have an “F” grade. No Palm Beach County schools are on the list.
Critics object that the long-term goal of conservatives promoting the bill is privatization of the state’s public school system. The committee room on Thursday was packed with advocates who gave heated testimony on both sides of the issue.
“The Florida PTA feels very strongly that this is misleading the public and it could have devastating results to our kids,” said Dawn Steward, the Florida PTA’s vice president for education. “We want you to pull the bill, not the trigger.”
The teachers union opposes the measure that would go beyond the current requirement that school districts notify parents whose children are being taught by teachers who are do not specialize in the subject or have received unsatisfactory evaluations. The new proposal would require districts to inform parents that virtual instruction is available by teachers in the field who received satisfactory evaluations.
But no such evaluations are required under Florida law, Polk County School Board lobbyist Wendy Dodge told the committee.
“It’s about a catchy phrase. It’s a campaign slogan and let’s be honest, it’s about Jeb Bush legacy. It’s just one more so-called reform that the folks from the Foundation want to check off their Florida list so they can market them to corporations,” said Jeff Wright, public policy advocacy director for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Foundation for Florida’s Future Executive Director Patricia Levesque defended Bush’s impact on the state’s education system, saying it had made great gains under the former governor’s school grading plan instituted more than a decade ago.
Levesque said the bill “gets parents more engaged.”
Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, said that was he was labeled mentally retarded as a child and suspended from school more than 20 times. He said he is now a prosecutor, has written a book, and is a university professor.
Florida schools are failing because the Legislature has consistently cut their funding and lawmakers need to address the underlying problems facing minority students instead of “demonizing little kids,” McGhee said.
“This is not an attack on charter schools. This is basically our advocating on behalf of those kids that cannot speak for themselves,” he said.
But Trujillo insisted his proposal is aimed at helping students.
“I’m not here for ALEC. I’m not here for Jeb Bush. I’m not here for the unions. I’m here for the people, my constituents,” Trujillo said. “It’s easy to sit there and be critical but I think it’s more important for us to be proactive and for us to find solutions.”