Parent trigger vote expected Friday; opponents hopeful it will fail

03/08/12 Janelle Irwin
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Update: the parent trigger / parent empowerment bill failed 20-20 Friday

A final state Senate vote on the "parent trigger" bill has been postponed until Friday; it would allow parents to have a say in how to improve a failing school including turning it into a privately run charter school. The bill has already passed in the House, but Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teacher’s Association, said she’s confident there is enough opposition to leave the measure dead Friday.

“I think the PTA organizations across the state, the teacher organizations in all districts and counties, the school board’s association representing all districts in the state, the superintendents representing all districts in the state. I think the teachers, the school boards, and the superintendents across the state, in every district – all 67 – have been very clear in their concern about what the actual implications of this bill passing would be and have been very vocal in their opposition.”

But supporters of the bill are also claiming they have widespread support from constituents. One organization lobbying for the bill’s passage is called Students First. Their founder is Michelle Rhee who was ousted as the superintendent for Washington DC’s public schools. Jeri Powell is a specialist with that group. She said there is parent support all over the state and in Tallahassee in support of the measure.

“There are a lot of parents who are very much in support of this bill, but it’s hard for a parent if you’re not a part of an established group, if you’re not active in leadership in the PTA or you haven’t founded a parent group and you’re not politically active. It’s a lot harder for the everyday parent to channel their support and their views.”

The measure has been dubbed the parent trigger bill because it gives parents with children in a failing school the ability to pull the trigger on a failing program. One of the ways they can do that is by putting the school into the hands of a private management program. But Hillsborough Classroom Teacher’s Association’s Jean Clements said that is just an effort to privatize public education.

“We have an obligation as a nation to provide for the education of every child and the education of every child should not be compromised in order to allow for private schools to serve more kids. Private schools have always had the ability to raise funding for scholarships and many do and that’s great. But the already strapped public schools cannot afford to be giving up those dollars to other schools outside the system when 95% of our children – greater than 95% of our children – are in public schools.”

Supporter Jeri Powell argues that’s just not true. She said for-profit management companies wouldn’t even want to bother with that kind of turn around program.

“It’s a pretty extensive process that would require you to go to a failing school – which by the way, a lot of organizations aren’t attracted to turning around failing schools, it’s a very difficult thing to do, number one. Number two, the process that would be put in place to organize parents, it really is a pretty intensive and long process that isn’t conducive or isn’t as attractive as other options that a for-profit charter might want to take. This is not the route that a for-profit charter would want to take to turn around a school.”

Instead Powell said the bill, if signed into law, would give parents several options that include more than just charter programs. It would also include giving parents access to the performance evaluation of any teacher they have a child assigned to.

“Currently, school districts can utilize one of four options in turning around schools that are failing. What this does is allow an additional option for the majority of parents in a school to also have a voice and a seat at the table with respect to those four turn around options.”

Senator Nan Rich, a Democrat, said she thinks there is enough opposition for the measure to fail in the Senate. But Senator Jack Latvala, a Republican, is drafting a possible compromise. According to the Tampa Bay Times, he said he supports the concept of addressing failing schools, but not handing them over to the commercial charter school industry. Hillsborough County’s Classroom Teacher’s Association’s Jean Clements doesn’t want an amendment though.

“Senator Latvala says that he is doing this because he is afraid the bill might pass and so he wants to make sure it’s not so harmful if it does. I have not talked to him. I cannot even speculate what his real motivation is. But I think we can kill this bill. I think the parents are overwhelmingly opposed to this bill. They don’t want to give up control of their local neighborhood schools to for-profit or not-for-profit management companies that are going to come in and take over the schools for reasons that may not have their child’s best interest at heart.”

Governor Rick Scott has shown support for the plan and will likely sign it if it crosses his desk. But Clements said if that happens the law will be challenged for constitutionality. The Senate is set to vote on it Friday, the final day of the legislative session.

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