TALLAHASSEE — For the second straight year, the Florida Senate today defeated a bill promoted as giving parents a voice in charting a turnaround plan for failing public schools.
The measure championed by school-choice supporters failed on a dramatic 20-20 vote after a drawn-out debate. Afterward, applause broke out in the gallery, drawing a stern rebuke from the Senate president.
The debate turned into a replay from last year, when a similar bill passed the Florida House but died in the Senate on a tie vote.
Five Republicans in the GOP-led Senate switched their votes from a year ago, including four one-time supporters who voted against the measure today.
Supporters characterized House Bill 867 as giving parents a “seat at the table” in setting a turnaround course for failing public schools in the Sunshine State.
“Give parents a right to be involved with their school,” said Republican Sen. Aaron Bean. “How hard is that?”
Opponents countered that parents already wield considerable influence in setting each school's course. They also called it a back-door way to hand public schools over to private educational companies.
“I'm just concerned that this is the beginning of … a blueprint for the corporate takeover of public schools,” said Democratic Sen. Darren Soto. “And what if it doesn't work? What if we get stuck with all these schools privatized and it doesn't work out? We will have reached the point of no return.”
Supporters discounted that argument, saying a key change in the Senate version would prevent a corporate takeover of a failing school without local consent.
The Senate had earlier amended the bill to make sure local school boards make the final decision on a turnaround plan. Under its version, the local boards would have to consider options preferred by parents.
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.
Critics said that provision undermined the intention of giving parents a seat at the table.
The proposal would allow parents to vote on one of several turnaround options through a petition drive, which could include putting a “plan of correction” into effect to fix the school. Another option would be 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.
Opponents included public school districts, teachers' unions and parents' groups.
In the House-passed version, the State Board of Education was given the role as final arbiter if the local school board and parents differed on a turnaround plan.
The measure would apply only to Florida schools that received an “F.” There are currently about two dozen schools rated as failing; Florida schools receive A through F letter grades based on how students perform on certain standardized tests. But during a debate on similar legislation in the House, Democrats noted that under a new “Common Core” rating system starting in 2014-15, there could be close to 150.
Fund Education Now, an advocacy group for public education, hailed the Senate vote today, especially lauding the Republican senators who sided with Democrats in defeating the bill.
“Today is what parent empowerment is all about,” the group said in a statement.
The bill has been a favorite of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.
“The choice today was simple, do you believe parents deserve a seat at the table or not,” said Patricia Levesque, the group's executive director.