Tense fight over school 'parent trigger' bill ends in its defeat

A bipartisan coalition stopped the divisive bill that would have let parents overhaul schools.
Published March 9 2012
Updated March 10 2012

TALLAHASSEE — The well-financed, politically savvy backers of the parent trigger bill thought it would be a sure thing.

Opponents knew it would be a dogfight.

In the end, it came down to a dramatic, last-minute vote in the sharply divided Florida Senate.

A coalition of Democrats and Republicans on Friday mustered the 20 votes needed to defeat SB 1718, which would have enabled parents to demand sweeping changes at low-performing schools. Among the options: having the school converted into an independently run charter school.

"This bill would have dismantled and defunded our public education system," said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, who fought against the proposal. "It would have allowed private, for-profit (charter school) management companies to take advantage of our public assets."

Supporters insisted it was never about privatizing schools, but rather empowering parents.

"It is a sad day for Florida's parents and students when 20 Senate members vote against giving parents the tools they need to improve their child's persistently failing school," said Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.

From the start of the 60-day session, the parent trigger was among the most hotly debated bills.

Its earliest opponents: a coalition of parent groups that included the Florida Parent Teacher Association. Almost immediately after the bill was filed, the coalition distributed a stinging press release, claiming the proposal really sought to line the pockets of for-profit school management companies, which would have access to new contracts.

"This was never really about parents," said Mindy Gould, legislative chair of the Florida PTA.

The parents stayed involved, testifying at committee meetings and participating in press conferences.

But supporters, including Bush's foundation and a California nonprofit called Parent Revolution, responded with an aggressive media campaign of their own. They invited parents from California, where similar legislation passed last year, to speak about how the legislation had transformed their schools and communities. Some delivered tearful testimonials.

The pace picked up in the final days of session.

Gov. Rick Scott and national education reformer Michelle Rhee made phone calls in support of the bill. Teachers' unions urged their members to stand up in opposition.

The maneuvering in the Florida Capitol was just as intense.

The bill passed along party lines in the House. But in the more moderate Senate — which had fractured after an attempt to oust future leadership — the parent trigger proposal became a political lightning rod.

Last week, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans blocked an attempt to fast-track the bill to the Senate Floor. Later, a bipartisan group prevented the bill from being added to the calendar.

But with the clock winding down on the legislative session, Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, secured a last-minute hearing for the parent trigger proposal.

On Thursday night, the Senate questioned the proposal until 10 p.m. They came back for a debate and vote on Friday afternoon — the very last day of the legislative session.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, argued that the legislation could be "truly transformational" in Florida's chronically failing public schools.

Its sponsor, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, pointed out that state and federal law already prescribes reform measures for struggling schools — and that conversion to a charter school is one of them.

But Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said she had received thousands of letters and phone calls, urging her to oppose the bill. Lynn slammed the California group pushing the proposal, saying its members were oblivious to the education reform already talking place in Florida.

Ultimately, the 12 Senate Democrats and eight maverick Republicans (Lynn, Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Dennis Jones, R-Seminole; and Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville) banded together to defeat the bill.

The vote represented a stinging loss for Senate leadership — and for Bush's education agenda.

Parent activist Colleen Wood called it a win for moms and dads.

"This shows that the love Florida parents have for their children is stronger than any amount of money that can be put into a lobbying campaign," she said.