The Florida Legislature is still trying to shed its responsibility for the state's struggling public schools. The latest scheme, enabling a majority of parents at a public school to force a conversion to a charter school, is not the answer. Republican senators who care about their communities and accountability should join Democrats and say no to the so-called "parent trigger" law.
This bill (SB 1718) is the latest policy pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future under the guise that the threat of competition from the private sector will improve public education. But there is also an incentive for the private sector, given that more public schools are expected to be deemed failing in coming years due to pending changes in the state's grading formula. This parent trigger bill would allow a small cadre of parents to influence how millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent. Those groups would be more susceptible to a for-profit charter operator's pitch than the seasoned public education professionals who decide under current law.
The legislation, based on a 2010 California law, would allow a majority of parents at underperforming schools — now roughly 6 percent of Florida's schools — to sign petitions stating a preference for what should happen next, including contracting with a charter school operator. If the local school board didn't embrace the option recommended by petition, the state Board of Education would decide between the two options. Never mind if the petition signers had been active in the PTA, attended a parent-teacher conference or if their child would attend the school the following year. Under the bill, great deference would be given to the parents' choice.
Republican sponsors claim their goal is to empower parents, but it's really just another gimmick distracting from lawmakers' continued indifference to investing in public schools. Even with the restoration of $1 billion next year to cover most of this year's cut in public education spending, Florida still ranks among the lowest in the nation in per pupil spending.
Two recent lessons in the Tampa Bay region also should inform senators' votes before they open the door wider for charter schools. The Pinellas County School Board is trying to revoke the charter of a Life Force Arts and Technology Academy in Dunedin after it was discovered to have used tax dollars to purchase Church of Scientology-related materials and taken children on a field trip to a Scientology church. And schools in St. Petersburg and Land O' Lakes run by the nonprofit Imagine School also remain under scrutiny because of the extraordinary rental payments they make to a related, for-profit corporation.
The Florida House already has approved this bad idea, and Senate leaders once again circumvented normal procedures to ensure the bill comes to a vote by the full Senate before the annual session ends Friday. Florida doesn't need this further erosion of public education. What it needs is a Legislature willing to improve public schools, not just foist their responsibility off on private businesses that are ready to profit regardless of whether they are ready for the challenge of providing a sound education.