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Bill would let parents decide failing school's fate

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:43 PM

TALLAHASSEE — Legislation moving quickly in the Republican-controlled Legislature would let parents "trigger" turnaround plans for failing public schools that could include management by for-profit companies.

The measure (HB 1191) has drawn opposition from Democrats and parent groups, but House Education Committee Chairman Bill Proctor, a St. Augustine Republican, rammed it through his panel without allowing debate because time was running out on the meeting.

Supporters include StudentsFirst, an organization founded by former Washington public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has advised Gov. Rick Scott. It's also supported by former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future and California-based Parent Revolution, which successfully lobbied for a trigger law in that state.

The Florida PTA and Fund Education Now, a group that's suing the state over what it contends is insufficient school funding, are among the opponents.

"It is with alarm that we watch you consider a bill that uses the parents' love for their children to pull the trigger and hand over a valuable public asset to a private, for-profit entity with no guarantee of any better outcome for our children," Linda Kobert told lawmakers.

Kobert, a parent from Orange County, is a co-founder of Fund Education Now.

Deborah Gianoulis, a Ponte Vedra Beach education activist and former television news anchor, said parent groups oppose the bill because they prefer to work with, not against, school officials.

"This bill is being promoted by lobbyists," said Gianoulis, who ran for the Florida Senate as a Democrat in 2010. "It is not being promoted to create community. It's being promoted to create conflict, to rob our neighborhoods of community schools, which are bought and paid for by taxpayers."

Parent Revolution spokeswoman Linda Serrato denied that hers is a lobbying group. She said the goal of a trigger law is to get school officials to pay attention to parents.

Serrato cited the example of a California school where 70 percent of parents signed a trigger petition.

"No one was listening," she told lawmakers. "They had tried for so long to reach out to teachers and district administrators. Their ideas and feelings were ignored, and only after they submitted those petitions did the district listen to them."

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said research shows parents are the most powerful influence on a child's education.

"The more information a parent has about their child's educational surrounding and their educational experience the more they can meaningfully engage," Bileca said. "This bill provides a real avenue for meaningful engagement and enhanced engagement."

A turnaround option would be triggered if 51 percent of parents sign a petition.

The State Board of Education would decide whether to implement an option chosen by the school board or one favored by the parents.

Other provisions pertain to the assignment of students to teachers.

One would prohibit a student from getting a teacher with an unsatisfactory evaluation for two consecutive years. Parents would able to obtain evaluations of their children's teachers, and schools would have to inform them if their children have chronically low-performing or out-of-field teachers.

The bill now is ready for floor action in the House. A similar Senate bill (SB 1718) has one more committee stop.

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