The controversial “parent trigger” or "parent empowerment" bill, has cleared its final committee stop in the Senate with a major change. Opponents say an amendment tacked onto the bill Thursday makes the proposal much better, and it also may have watered down the bill.
The Senate-version of the proposal was amended to bring it more in line with a variation that’s already cleared the Florida House. But an additional amendment by Republican Senator David Simmons (R-Maitland), goes further. Simmons’ amendment takes away the ability of the appointed State Board of Education, to have final say on turnaround options for schools.
“We have said that this will be a local decision here," he said during committee.
Simmons says the amendment is aimed at keeping and enforcing local control, as well as holding both school districts and parents, accountable for the outcome of school performance.
“The parents are as culpable as the school board. The parents are the ones who have not had the involvement to cause their children to do well in that school. At the same time, many of them are in poverty...and therefore the school district has an extra lift that it must make.”
Under the original version of the bill, parents with kids in a failing school can petition a school district to implement one of five federally-mandated school improvement options: such as closure, conversion to a charter school or the overhaul of the administration. If local school boards didn’t agree with the parents’ recommendation, they could submit their own plan. The state Board of Education would then decide. Local school districts derided that as a loss of local control. But Simmons’ amendment removes the State Board from the picture.
The amendment marks a small victory for opponents to the bill, who worry parents could be swindled into the conversion option by greedy, for-profit charter school operators. But it doesn’t mean they’re okay with the rest of the bill, and many of the same parent and teacher groups who have been in opposition, continue to oppose the measure, even though many say they appreciate the amendment.
“I want to thank Senator Stargel and Senator Simmons for trying to make this bill better. It’s really hard to make a bad bill better, but the PTA is still going to have to oppose the overall trigger bill because there are still a lot of what-ifs,” said Dawn Stewart with the Florida PTA.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) says she’s willing to keep the amendment in the bill, only on certain conditions: “if we’re all in agreement that we want to do something as a state in failing schools...and give parents a say. Then I’ll cautiously support this today knowing that we will continue to work on this and that it’s not a set-in-stone deal.”
Simmons’ amendment neuters the “trigger” part of the bill. And groups that have backed it, such as the pro-school choice groups like the Foundation for Florida’s future, created by former Governor Jeb Bush, aren’t pleased.
“Well, with this amendment, parents are essentially told you can have a seat at the table, but you don’t have anything to leverage for your voice to be heard," said Allison Aubuchon Foundation’s spokeswoman.
Democrats on the committee supported the amendment but voted against the entire bill. Still, with the new language giving school districts final say, some Democrats say they could support the proposal, if the amendment language stays intact. The proposal has already cleared the more conservative House and the amended version of the bill could face an uphill battle if it goes back before the chamber.