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Parent Trigger Dies In The Senate For The Second Year In A Row

A bill giving parents more of a say in the fate of failing public schools has failed in the Senate on a dramatic, tied vote. It’s the second year in a row the Senate has killed the bill.

An amendment by Republican Senator David Simmons stayed intact, giving local school boards, not the state board of education, the final say on the fate of failing public schools. It was meant to ease concerns over a potential loss of local authority. But that wasn’t enough to sway bill opponents to vote for the bill.

“It’s the bigger picture I’m concerned about. Year-by-year we can see legislation to make it easier. Year-by-year we could see an increase of the standards in our schools as a set up. To set them up to fail. And I’m concerned that this is just the beginning of an ingenious plot," said Democratic Senator Darren Soto.

He and others likened the proposal to a corporate takeover of public schools. Under the plan, teachers would be allowed to petition school districts to consider one of four existing turnaround options, including overhauling the administration and even closing the school. But the option that most people are focused on, is the conversion option.

Under state law, a district can choose to convert that failing school into a charter. Opponents to the bill say unscrupulous for-profit charter school corporations could mislead unsuspecting parents into signing a petition to convert their school into a charter, effectively privatizing it. Before the Senate’s vote, a petition in favor of the bill was found to have duplicate signatures, and even names of opponents. Democratic Senator Jeff Clemens used that issue to question the integrity of the petition process outlined in the bill.

“If we’ve got parents supposedly signing this petition to say we want parent empowerment, and then we find out later those signatures were forged or duplicated or they never signed it in the first place. How can we at all trust this process that allows parents to petition to change over their school into a corporate school?” Clemens said.

State law allows students to transfer out of failing public schools. They can go to a better perform public school in the district while it foots the bill for transportation. Parents can also choose to send their kids to charter schools, regardless. And there’s also the ability for low-income students to use the state’s corporate tax scholarship program to enter private school.

Those pushing for the parent empowerment bill say more needs to be done for the kids left in the failing school. They hold up the parent-trigger bill as a solution.

“We need to come around as an entire community to help these kids. But I think the one person who knows what might help this kid is the parent. And I don’t understand the argument that we don’t want to listen to the parent," said Republican Senator Kelli Stargel, the bill's sponsor.

Stargel urged her fellow lawmakers to advance the bill, saying a vote in favor of the parent empowerment act is a vote to give parents a voice. Any decision to convert a school would still be up to districts, but Stargel says her proposal would give parents a seat at the table.

“We have four options that this school district can look at now. We’ll have five options when this bill is passed. The only difference is that they get to listen to the suggestion of the parent.”   

But in the end, it wasn’t enough, as the Senate voted down the measure in a 20-20 vote tie.

The bill’s failure generated cheers from the audience, leading Senate President Don Gaetz, a former school district superintendent, to use his “teacher’s voice” and chastise the crowd:

“Ladies and Gentlemen in the gallery, this is the Senate of the State of Florida. If there’s one more outburst for or against any bill, will clear those galleries. Understand? Good. Take up the next bill," Gaetz said.

Groups like the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a school-reform group created by Jeb Bush, backed the bill. So did Students First—another school reform group started by Michelle Rhee, Governor Rick Scott’s former Education advisor and former Washington D.C. Chancellor. The California-based Parent Revolution Group—which started the parent trigger movement in that state a few years ago, was also part of the push for the bill In opposition were teacher unions, and parents groups such as the Florida PTA.

This is the second year the proposal has failed on a tie. Advocates for the bill had hoped this year would be the charm. Many of the moderate and libertarian-leaning Republicans who had joined with Democrats to kill the proposal were termed out of the chamber last year and replaced with more conservative lawmakers. It still wasn’t enough to pass the parent trigger bill.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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