TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — School-choice supporters revived a bill that would give Florida parents a say in turnaround plans for failing public schools and saw its first win of the year on Thursday.
The House Choice and Innovation subcommittee cleared the “Parent Empowerment in Education Act” (HB 867) on a party-line 8-5 vote.
Known informally as the “parent trigger” bill, it would allow parents to vote on what to do with a failing school. Options include reassigning students to other schools or handing the school over to a private company to run as a charter school.
The local school board makes the decision, but that decision — which may be against the majority of parents’ wishes — can be overruled by the State Board of Education.
And just as it did last year, the bill is summoning up the blood of both sides.
Opponents, like public school districts, teachers’ unions and parents’ groups, call it a back-door way to hand public schools over to private educational companies. Backers say that by giving parents a voice, it will encourage them to get involved in their children’s schools.
A similar bill passed the House in 2012 but died on the floor of the Senate in a tie vote. Lobbyists for the measure privately say there are enough votes in both chambers for it to pass this year.
Gov. Rick Scott, who must sign it into law, has yet to take a position on the proposal. He’s pushing lawmakers to support his plan to give Florida’s teachers a $2,500 pay raise.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the Miami Republican who’s sponsoring the measure this year, said he wants to stop the trend of schools that keep failing succeeding generations: “They failed the grandparent, they failed the parent, they’ll fail that child.”
The bill’s fans include former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. Its executive director, Patricia Levesque, said the proposal just ensures “that parents get a say.”
She pointed out another part of the bill that ensures students won’t get assigned to an ineffective teacher, as judged by performance evaluations, for two years in a row.
Former Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat who now supports the charter school movement, said most failing schools are in minority neighborhoods.
“I talk to parents, and they feel like they don’t have any power,” he said in support of the bill.
But Chris Stevens, a student at Lake-Sumter Community College in Clermont, said the bill undercuts the work of public school teachers.
“It is ridiculous to think that we would even consider placing our children’s futures in the hands of charter schools and not in the hands of those already there doing the work, putting in the blood, sweat and tears,” he told lawmakers.
Rep. Kionne L. McGhee, a Miami Democrat and lawyer, spoke of his experience in a struggling school: He was labeled “disturbed” and “retarded,” suspended 20 times and missed 100 days of school one year. He went on to college, law school, passing the bar and teaching college classes.
“By the time they make it to school, the majority of these kids are not interested in learning,” he said. “To punish (public school) teachers for those actions is a form of criminality that needs to be thrown out at the first opportunity.”
McGhee also suggested the problems lie in years of cuts to education over the years: “We were in a better position before profits walked in and dividends were paid out.”
Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, summed up the passion on both sides: “Everyone who has come here has come here with a heart to do the right thing.”