School Prayer, American Founders and parent triggers clear house

Mar 1, 2012

The Florida house has tackled a wide array of education bills—from inspirational messages in public schools, to designating September as American Founder’s month. Lynn Hatter reports some bills are now heading to the governor while others await senate approval.

Republican Representative Mike Bileca said he thought his proposal to designate September as American Founders day, was pretty straightforward.

 “The leading figures present at the founding of our country are some of the most heroic, inspirational men and women regardless of ethnicity and race, that have ever walked the surface of our country.”  

 The proposal met with a flurry of critics, mostly democrats like Miami’s Representative Dwight Bullard. He questioned Bileca on WHO would be considered an American Founder.

 “We’re not going to talk about the Mexican Annexation. We’re not going to talk about the  Louisiana Purchase. We’re not going to talk about Toussaint Louverture in Haiti—without his revolt that led to the expansion of our country…that’s what this bill does. It discounts that. And that’s wrong.” 

Despite those objections, the House voted 91-24 to approve the bill and send it over to the Senate. Bileca’s so-called “parent trigger” bill allowing parents to petition school districts to  convert failing schools into charters also caused a stir. Republican Representative Fred Costello defended the proposal.

 “We need to have private schools, charter schools, parochial schools, virtual schools, home schools, hybrid schools—any kind of school the parent decides what’s best for that child. We need to empower the parents, because its about the children. American schools must be the best in the world. And this will help.”  

Opponents argue the parent trigger proposal is corporate welfare for private, for-profit charter school companies. The bill now heads over to the Senate where a companion measure is awaiting a last minute budget hearing.

And a state teachers union, the Florida Education Association, found itself the target of attack over a proposal to allow another teacher group to represent instructors in lawsuits. The Professional Educators Network or PEN, wants the ability to represent teachers, but doesn’t want to be classified as a union—which also entails collective bargaining. Critics have said the measure is an attempt at union busting, and Republican Representative Matt Gaetz likened the FEA to the mafia during his floor speech.

 “Don’t vote to preserve the gratuitous and shameful monopoly from your political allies in the Florida Education Association.” 

The FEA’s spokesman Mark Pudlow says union membership is entirely voluntary, and that the dispute is because the union doesn’t always agree with the party now in charge.

 “And we work to make sure our members have the rights that all employees should have and I don’t think we represent anything like what you see on the Sopranos.” 

 Lawmakers found themselves treading the boundaries of the separation of church and state as they argued over a provision to allow “inspirational messages” at public school events. With Senate sponsor Democrat Gary Siplin standing by, House Representatives like fellow Democrat Darren Soto say the bill will lead to some students being ostracized.

 “This is the predecessor to school prayer, plain and simple.  What I worry about the little Jewish kid, or the little Muslim kid who has to return to the classroom where their differences are highlighted for all their peers to exploit.” 

But the proposal also pulled in some Democrats in support, and it cleared the chamber on an 88-27 vote.  The measure is a response to a series of lawsuits began in 2008 against the Santa Rosa County School district. Since then, the district has spent half-a million dollars defending itself. The original lawsuit was brought by the Florida ACLU, which in a release shortly after the bill’s passage, called it another “lawsuit waiting to happen.” It now heads to the governor’s desk.