TALLAHASSEE — One of this year's most hotly debated education bills has become even more contentious.
At an unusual Saturday morning meeting, the Senate Budget Committee gave the green light to the so-called parent trigger bill.
The proposal, a priority for former Gov. Jeb Bush, would allow parents at low-performing schools to demand sweeping changes, including having the school converted into a charter school.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the sponsor, said the 13-7 vote in favor of the bill represented an important step toward reforming the state's long struggling public schools.
But Senate Democrats left fuming.
For one, lawmakers weren't given a chance to debate the proposal. And members of the public weren't able to provide testimony until after the votes had been counted.
"This is not in the best interest of children," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, vowing to fight the bill on the Senate Floor. "This is about for-profit charter school companies coming in and trying to make a large footprint in Florida."
The parent trigger bill has been among the most controversial education proposals this year.
Supporters say it has the potential to help chronically struggling schools by harnessing the power of parents. They point to provisions that would require low-performing schools to inform parents when their children are assigned to low-performing or out-of-field teachers.
But opponents contend the bill was written to benefit for-profit charter school management companies by giving them access to public schools. They worry Florida's more rigorous school grading formula, expected to kick in later this year, will result in hundreds more failing schools — and more opportunities for charter school companies to win contracts.
The bill passed last week in the House. But it had stalled in the Senate, and had one final committee stop before reaching the Senate floor.
On Friday, backers of the bill attempted to fast track the proposal in the Senate. But a bipartisan coalition blocked the move in a tense 21-19 vote.
The Senate Budget Committee was called to hear the bill early Saturday morning.
At the meeting, Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, gave the committee only an hour to tackle 14 amendments to the already controversial bill.
The move drew criticism from several Democrats and Republican Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.
"This is an important bill," said Lynn. "We are putting a time certain on something that is going to affect our children's' lives forever? Horrendous."
There was no time for debate. Only one parent was able to provide testimony.
Lynn joined six Democrats in opposition.
Alexander did allow more than an hour of public testimony after the meeting, and many of the Senators stuck around.
Democrats cried foul, noting that parents and other members of the public had been unable to speak last week when the proposal was heard in the Senate PreK-12 Budget Subcommittee.
"We're going to work very hard to get the votes needed to defeat this bill," said Rich, who is planning a press conference on the issue for 9:30 a.m. Monday.
Benacquisto, the sponsor, was also gearing up for a battle. "Our kids deserve the very best," she said.