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Education

Florida panel OKs ‘parent empowerment’ bill

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: April 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM
TALLAHASSEE -

The Senate Education Committee voted on straight party lines today for a “parent empowerment” bill that proponents said would give families a way of making chronically failing schools get better and opponents warned would make it easier for profit-making charter schools to take over schools with no guarantee of better education.

The committee's 6-3 vote followed more than an hour of free-wheeling testimony by parents, teachers, district administrators and professional associations on both sides. Critics called the bill by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, a “parent trigger” — the title it had last year, when it narrowly failed in the closing days of the legislative session — while supporters said it simply stops school boards from shrugging off parental complaints about F-graded schools, year after year.

“It reflects the voices of the parents more than the existing status,” said Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, a charter school operator who heads the Senate committee. “This allows parents to express their concerns in a meaningful way so the school board knows it.”

Legg noted that existing law gives school districts five options for improving schools that show no signs of improving student test scores.

They can convert a school to a “turnaround school” managed by the school board, reassign students to other schools and monitor their progress, close a school and reopen it as one or more charter schools with new governing boards, contract with an outside entity to run the school or implement a combination of those options or new ideas.

The trouble with that, said Stargel, is that a school board can choose one option and try it out for two years, then try another and another, almost indefinitely — while students continue to drop out or graduate with inadequate education. Legg said the pending bill would let parents choose one of those options and make the district get to work on it.

“It allows the parents to say which one of the five options they want to try first,” said Legg said.

But Susan Smith of Odessa, a mother and former teacher, said when the new “common core” curriculum is implemented, student test scores are going to fall. That will mean more than the current 25 F-graded schools will be ripe for the picking by corporate charter operators, said Smith, a Democratic Party activist whose bright yellow lapel button said “Parent Trigger Kills Public Schools.”

“Parents seeking empowerment are not behind this,” she said. “Corporations and billions of dollars are behind it. They have an agenda to privatize education for their profit.”

The plan split the Senate almost evenly in the final days of the 2012 session, when proponents called it “parent trigger.” Sponsors softened that to “parent empowerment” this year and passage looks likely, with five of last year's opponents now gone from the Senate and replaced by conservative Republicans.

“Nothing is broken,” Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, told the committee. “Parents can come before a district school board now, they can come before a district superintendent, and ask that anything needed can be done. What you have here is a small group trying to push their agenda on the state as a whole — a solution looking for a problem.”

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who runs the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, voted against the bill and called it both unnecessary and mislabeled.

Terry Wilson of Lakeland, representing the Florida Gifted Network, said the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) oppose the bill, along the Florida PTA and several other education and civil rights groups.

But Adam Giery, director of education for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, called the bill a bold step toward giving parents alternatives to failing schools.

“We're tired of the status quo,” Giery said.

Stargel and three Tampa Bay-area senators voted for the bill, along with Sens. Elizabeth Benequisto, R-Fort Myers, and David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Democrats opposing it were Montford and Sens. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.

The House version of the bill is scheduled for floor debate Tuesday.


Contact reporter Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee at bcotterell@gmail.com

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