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Henderson: Schools need parents, not a trigger

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Published:   |   Updated: May 2, 2013 at 08:20 AM

I thought the so-called “Parent Trigger” bill that was being considered in the Legislature was a bad idea when it was reintroduced for this session, so I can’t say I’m sorry it died in the Florida Senate.

On the surface it sounded like a way for parents with students enrolled in failing schools to be heard. It would have given them the right to force wholesale curriculum changes or even conversion to a charter school. That’s what made a lot of people queasy about this bill. It was way too footsy with the for-profit school industry.

It has failed twice now, and at least one of its supporters, state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, doesn’t think it will get a third chance.

“I don’t think so,” he said when I asked whether he thinks it will be introduced again next year.

In my opinion, it started from the flawed premise that it’s always the institution’s fault when a school fails. Either the teachers didn’t care or the administrators were indifferent or any of a thousand other reasons that don’t require parents and students to first look in the mirror.

There are bad teachers, and no one is saying otherwise. Before we blow up the public school system, though, let’s widen the net. Talk to any teacher or administrator about life in the classroom today and you’ll hear of rampant disrespect among some (not all) students.

It is not uncommon for fights and arrests to take place in Hillsborough County’s high schools, usually followed by a visit or phone call from an indignant parent screaming whatever happened could not possibly have been the fault of their little darling.

That 22 he just scored on the science test? Sure, he skipped class and didn’t study, but the failing grade still must be the teacher’s fault.

There are many dedicated parents devoting time as volunteers and mentors, but there are just as many who are at the core of the problem. Even if that weren’t the case, I’m not sure why anyone thinks giving parents the authority to reprogram a failing school is the answer.

Lee, while obviously disappointed to see the bill fail, generally has a common-sense approach to things. I was curious how he connected the dots on this piece of legislation.

“We’ve been trying to fix public education since the first time I came to the Senate, in 1996,” he said. “I felt like this gave parents a chance to get up in arms over a failing school and might give them some empowerment. If I had just heard the debate on the Senate floor and didn’t know the inner workings of the bill, though, I would have voted no, too.

“I just thought the debate didn’t go well for proponents of the bill. It lacked a drumbeat of support from parents and teachers. I think the for-profit motive (of charter schools) associated with this hurt, too.”

There are a lot of good charter schools, but they are not the silver bullet. As they grow in popularity, they also have the potential to drain significant money from the public school budget, which only makes it rougher on at-risk schools.

“Everybody looks to the institution to solve anything,” Lee said in lament. “Fifty years ago, a student in trouble would have gotten help from his family. Now all the responsibility is on the school.”

There is plenty of truth to what Lee said. Maybe a troubled student hasn’t gotten guidance at home and becomes a habitual troublemaker. Maybe his mother is working three jobs as a single parent just to keep food on the table and doesn’t have spare time for the PTA.

With all that in play, where does the buck stop?

The problem defies any single explanation, and trying to fix it with a parent bill that pandered to politics would have only made it worse. Some things, like this bill, just need to die. Thank goodness it did.


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