A Florida Senate panel made changes Thursday to a bill aimed at giving parents a voice in charting a turnaround course for failing public schools, removing a role for the State Board of Education to settle disputes between parents and local school boards.
Weighing in on a hotly contested bill known as the "parent trigger," the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education accepted changes proposed by Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland. His amendment would make local school boards the final decision makers in choosing turnaround options for failing schools in their districts.
The measure would apply only to Florida schools that received an "F." There are currently 25 schools rated as failing; Florida schools receive A through F letter grades based on how students perform on certain standardized tests. But during a recent debate on similar legislation in the House, Democrats noted that under a new "Common Core" rating system s tarting in 2014-15, there could be close to 150.
Under the revised Senate bill, parents would still be able to propose a plan to improve the school, but the local school board would make the final decision.
Local boards would have to consider options preferred by parents. The actual voting by parents would be done through a petition drive. If a board rejected the parents' preference, the board would have to report why it did so while defending its reason for choosing another course. The report would have to be presented at a public hearing.
The proposal allows parents to vote on one of several options through a petition drive, which could include putting a "plan of correction" into effect to fix the school. Another option is turning the failing school into a charter school, which could be managed by the school district, a nonprofit or a for-profit educational company. This option has upset most bill opponents.
In the House-passed version (HB 867), the State Board of Education was given the role as final arbiter. It could overrule the local school board's option if it preferred the parents' choice.
Simmons said his amendment reflected concerns that local school boards would have their authority curtailed.
"Believe it or not, we're listening to the school boards out there," he said.
Despite the changes, several education groups still opposed the bill.
Its critics have assailed it as a way to ease takeovers of public schools by for-profit companies. The bill is a favorite of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future. The measure's supporters say giving parents a voice will encourage them to get involved in their children's education.
Simmons said his changes still give parents a "full and fair" opportunity to press their preference to rescue a failing school.
"We're dealing with a local matter that's not looking for a Tallahassee solution but looking for a local solution," Si mmons said.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, said she cautiously supported the changes but added she hadn't had a chance to fully review the amendment.
"We want to do something as a state to intervene in these failing schools and to help these kids who are attending these failing schools and give these parents a say," she said.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, asked for assurances that the amended version would protect children from being stuck in schools that continue to fail. Simmons replied that he would be willing to work on language providing a backup plan if the school board "cannot get the job done" to turn around a failing school.
Similar legislation passed the Florida House last year but died in the Senate on a tie vote.