Parent trigger bill heads to House floor

Feb 16, 2012

A measure aimed at giving parents a greater say in what happens to a failing school is now heading to the House floor. Lynn Hatter reports the proposal is one that divides parent groups, and has opponents calling it a power grab.

Right now, Florida public schools labeled as “chronically failing” face a few different choices. Districts can replace principals and switch staff, increase funding, hand the school over to a private company or, convert it into a charter school. 

Under proposals in House and Senate, if the district’s option didn’t help improve the school after a year,  51-percent of parents could “pull the trigger” and petition for another option. The bill’s House sponsor, Republican Representative Mike Bileca, says his “parent trigger bill” gives parents a greater say in how failing schools are handled.

What the bill does is empower parents and gives them a seat at the table when the districts have to choose a turnaround option.”  

The concept of a “parent-trigger” is controversial. A few years ago California passed the first such law in the nation. Since then, 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 group Parent Revolution, backed the original law.  Members like Linda Serrato say the trigger law got parents and schools to talk to each other.

“One example is, over 70-percent of the parents at a local school that was failing for years. ..They came together and said, ‘we need to see a real change.’ And no one was listening. They had tried for so long to reach out to teachers and administrators. And they were ignored. And it was only after they had submitted those petitions, that the district listened to them.” 

But on the other side of the argument are parent-groups like the Florida PTA, Save Dade Schools and Fund Education Now. They say the parent-trigger law is divisive to communities and takes away local control. Deborah Gianoulis, a parent advocate from Duval, says the real impact of the parent trigger—and the groups behind it, are misleading.

“I believe it’s a slap in the face to every citizen who believes every local decision to rest with their local elected representatives. Empowering 51-percent of parents to take a public asset away from our community is not democracy. They are not elected. I respect every parent’s right to make a choice for their children, but not for all children.”

The concept of a parent-trigger law for Florida was raised last year by Governor Rick Scott’s former education advisor Michelle Rhee. The former Washington D.C school system chancellor and education documentary star was a high-profile figure in the education world. It also has the support of Governor Rick Scott, along with the school-choice lobbying group, the Foundation for Florida’s Future. The Foundation was created by former Governor Jeb Bush. 

Several states have passed parent trigger laws. And Shirley Ford, who helped craft and lobby for the original California law, says she’s heard the arguments over the parent trigger law over and over again.

“I’m upset about this. I am 63 years old, and I am still fighting the same fight that I fought for my children. I don’t care about buildings. I don’t care about Democrats or Republicans. I am a Democrat. What I care about are real, live children.” 

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 extra funding.

The House Education Committee passed the bill on a straight party-line vote, with Democrats in opposition. It’s now heading to the House floor. Meanwhile, a companion bill in the Senate has one more committee stop.