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Parent Trigger and Charter School Expansion Bills Head To House Floor

A House education committee has moved controversial bills like one that would give parents a say in the fate of failing public schools. Another would let charter schools move into unused public school buildings. Both proposals are now heading to the chamber floor but could conflict with Senate ideas.

Also up in the air is the fate of Florida’s newest university.

The so-called parent trigger bill, to opponents is also known as the parent-empowerment bill to its supporters. The proposal lets parents petition school districts to implement one of four turnaround options already in state law if a school receives an F-grade. It failed last year in the Senate over internal disagreements but is on a fast-track through the house. Supporters, like Karen Winston of Ocala, a former teacher, say parents have been relegated to the roles of chaperons and boosters in public schools. And she thinks it’s needed in order for school officials to take parents seriously.

“Over the years I’ve tried to take a conventional route in getting involved by joining the PTA and the SACC committees. I quickly learned I couldn’t make a different even there because it became clear the committees were just going through the motions," Winston testified before the House K-12 Education Committee. "So my message today is that parents want to be involved, but don’t know how to be because they’re not truly welcomed by the school.” 

Opponents say the bill opens the door for for-profit charters to take over failing schools. The measure is on its way to the House floor, but a companion bill in the Senate is still in its first committee. But supporters say they aren’t worried about the Senate’s delay. The bill may begin moving in that chamber around the fifth week of the legislative session. 

In the meantime, the House Education committee also passed out a massive charter school overhaul bill that places new finance and reporting restrictions on the schools, but would also give charters access to unused public school facilities. Districts and traditional public education supporters have called it a land grab, but charters would be required to pay maintenance costs. But there are still questions on whether districts should be responsible for major capital improvement projects if the targeted facility has been abandoned because of health and safety issues.

I would ask that you work with them to get a clarified answer before it goes to the floor," said Committee Chairwoman, Representative Marlene O'Toole.  

Over on the Senate side, the issue hasn’t been taken up yet and key Senators have expressed concerns over the move. According to the Tampa Bay Times, lawmakers may consider expanding the charter school building bill to include all unused public facilities, and make them open to other non-profits and community organizations.

Meanwhile, a growing divide has emerged between the two chambers on what to do with Florida’s newest public university.

The legislature created Florida Polytechnic last year amid political maneuvering. Polytech officials initially wanted an extra $25 million dollars but pulled that request after several officials raised concerns. An initial Senate outline doesn’t include any money for Polytech, but House Speaker Will Weatherford says he’s not worried:

“I’d be shocked if when the Senate rolls their budget out in its entirety, that Polytechnic is not included in there. I think it probably will be. I believe we have a responsibility to make the best lemonade we can out of the situation and hopefully turn that into a first-class institution," Weatherford said.

Florida Polytech school officials are expected to go before the State University System Governing Board to discuss the progress of the university during the upcoming Board of Governors meeting. The fledgling university is still trying to build up its main campus, recruit faculty and students, create a curriculum and become accredited.