Bills to allow parents to convert failing schools clears first legislative hurdles

Jan 24, 2012

A proposal to give parents a say in what to do with chronically failing schools has cleared its first stops in the House and Senate Tuesday. The bills are part of a nationwide movement to get parents more involved in public school systems. But as Lynn Hatter reports, the measures are being met with both support and opposition from the same parent groups they are trying to bring together.

Right now, Florida public schools labeled as “chronically failing” by the state and federal government face a few different choices. School districts can replace principals and switch staff, funding for the school can be increased, or it can be handed over to a private company or converted into a charter school.  

Under proposals in House and Senate, if none of those options helped improve the school after one year, a majority of parents, 51-percent, could petition the district to choose another one of those options. It’s called the parent-trigger law, and supporters, like Senate Bill Sponsor Lizabeth Benacquisto, say parents deserve to have more visible role in public schools.

“Anywhere in our communities where schools are struggling, parents have continued to come forward and say they want to have a role in the revitalization of a school and in making the education in their community better for all students, not just their own. So we think it’s a good time to move that forward.”

The idea for the parent trigger law comes from California, where two years ago that state’s legislature passed a similar bill giving parents in a failing school a majority vote on whether to turn it into a charter school.  Shirley Ford is from Los Angeles, and she’s the senior advisor of Parent Revolution—the group that created and backed the original parent-trigger bill.

 “Fifty-one percent is a high bar. So if you have 51-percent of anyone doing anything in any community, especially in a community where schools are failing, that’s speaking to the power, that’s speaking to the fact that parents are sick and tired of the failure, and we need to make a change.”

Two attempts have been made in California to turn failing schools into charters, one ended in a legal challenge and the other is being used as a bargaining chip to force the school to make changes. The parent group Parents Across America has been tracking parent-trigger laws across the county. One of its founders is Rita Solnet a former Palm Beach County PTA president.  She says the situation in California created nothing but hostility.

 “It wasn’t a formula for school improvement at all, it was more a formula for shutting the school down and turning it over to private communities. When I say it was a catastrophic failure, it just created enormous hostility and conflict within communities.”

Solnet says the Florida version of the parent trigger law is better than the California model, her group and others are against it. Another opponent to the parent-trigger bill is the Florida Parent-Teacher Association. It’s President, Jean Hovey, calls the bill a thinly-veiled attempt to privatize schools. She also says the bill doesn’t address why schools fail, and why some parents choose to sit out.

 “There are lots of ways to get parents involved, you need to find out why they aren’t coming  to the school, maybe it’s a language or a cultural barrier. There are avenues to work with the school district. And one of them is not, as this bill says, to “pull the trigger” and turn the school over to a charter school.”

Only a few Florida school districts have elected to turn their failing schools into charters. Most have opted to switch out school administrators and provide the school with extra money.  Supporters of the bill, which is backed by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, former governor Jeb Bush’s education lobbying firm, say the goal is to get parents involve and not spark dissent. They note that in other state’s with parent-trigger laws, like Texas and Mississippi, there was bi-partisan support. And in a press conference Tuesday about the bill, former State Senator Al Lawson, a Democrat, backed the bill as well. 

 “I am convinced that with this bill, that we are going to solve a major problem. And that is that you are going to give parents the responsibility to be more involved in their kids’ education and to empower them to help move a school in a direction that they need to go.”

The proposals, Senate Bill 1718 and House Bill 1191 call for children assigned to teachers with poor evaluations to receive a high performing teacher the next school year. It informs parents that they have the right to request a copy of their child’s teacher evaluation, and gives a virtual school option to students with ineffective or out of field teachers. It also calls on districts not to assign poor teachers to already failing schools.

The bills cleared their first committee stops in the House and Senate Tuesday. The House committee vote was 11-to-3 with one Democrat, Representative Darren Soto voting for it. It passed its Senate committee stop unanimously.