Senate kills parent trigger

Mar 9, 2012

The Florida Senate has rejected a proposal that would have given parents a greater say in the fate of failing public schools. The bill had been stalled all week as opponents worked to gather enough votes to kill it and as Lynn Hatter reports, after more than an hour and a half of questions and debate, the Senate made its decision.

After passing on a party-line vote in the House last week, a bi-partisan coalition of Senators found the 20 votes necessary to kill the so-called parent-trigger bill:

 “Senator Benacquisto having closed, final passage occurs on the bill, unlock the board and prepare to vote….2o yeas, 20 nays Mr. President.”

Supporters like the proposal’s sponsor, Senator Lizabeth Benacquisto of Wellington, argued the measure was needed to get parents more involved in the fate of persistently failing schools.

“I take on this issue because I have faith that given the opportunity in a real, meaningful voice, that parents will rise to the occasion and say failure is not an option for my family anymore. Enough is enough.”   

 From the beginning the bill has faced an uphill climb in Senate. The Parent Trigger movement began two years ago in California. Since it’s been in effect at least two schools have tried to use it to trigger changes. But those cases are still being contested in court. And throughout the course of the debate lawmakers like Democrat Bill Montford said what happens in California, should stay there.

 “Tell me where this has been successful elsewhere. I don’t believe we should get in line and follow California in anything. Much less education.”   

Eight Republicans sided with Democrats to oppose the bill. Among them was Senator Nancy Detert of Venice. She questioned the intent of the bill and said it’s not needed. Detert argued for giving earlier reform efforts time to work.

 “If you want to know what’s the matter with public education in Florida, look in the mirror. We’ve been changing everything year after year and we never give it time to gel. I will end by saying I just feel so sorry for our teachers and students. I think they are on an island in a sea of chaos.”

Thursday, Senate President Mike Haridpolos seemed almost to predict the way the vote would go --making note of the split within the Senate.

“When you talk about education, insurance, these aren’t cut and dry Republican/Democrat issues. Especially given where you live, the circumstances on education, weather conditions or how hurricanes affect you, you’re going to split in different ways on these kind of issues.”

The Senate did just that on the parent trigger bill—similar to the way it also split earlier in the session on Prison Privatization. Included in both issues was Republican Mike Fasano of New Port Richey who helped kill the privatization deal. Speaking on the parent trigger bill, Fasano said he couldn’t get behind the potential for schools paid for with taxpayer dollars to potentially be run by for-profit charter companies.

 “What do we tell the taxpayers back home who built that school, paid for the school, and in many cases, we have bond referendums. And now we’re going to take one of those schools and turn it over to a corporation to run the school…and they make a profit off of it.”

The lobbying for and against the proposal has been intense. The vote was delayed several times throughout the week as stakeholders counted votes and crafted amendments—some to save the bill, others to intentionally kill it. Supporters like the California-based Parent Revolution group sent out press releases with statements of support from prominent national democrats and African-Americans. But Florida based parent groups rallied for its defeat. The Senate’s main negotiator, Jack Latvala who had originally opposed the bill, switched his vote, after working to water the bill down in an effort to craft a compromise.

 “If what we were talking about today was the same bill that came over from the House of Representatives, I would be joining my colleagues who spoke against it today because I thought it was way to encompassing. But working with Sen. Benacquisto, we got a bill that is basically a pilot project.”

But there’s not going to be anyone flying that plane. Minority Leader Nan Rich argued with the opposition and characterized the bill as a thinly veiled attempt to privatize public education.

 “Under this legislation, by the time parents become empowered, a school has been labeled a failure. And their only “empowerment” is their ability to deliver their public school into the hands of a private charter management company.”   

With a 20-20 tie opposition managed to get enough votes to ground the bill for the session. But the debate over the parent trigger is far from other. About 20 other states are considering similar versions of the plan.