Parent trigger bill passed by House

Published Apr. 5, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House approved the controversial parent trigger proposal Thursday, setting the stage for a showdown in the Senate.

If the story line sounds familiar, there's a reason: The bill, which would enable parents at low-performing schools to demand sweeping changes in how the school is run, won the support of the Republican-dominated House last year.

The narrative may have a different ending this time.

Last year, the parent trigger bill died in the more moderate Senate. This year, the lawmaker shepherding the proposal in the upper chamber says she is counting on more support.

"What happened last year was more political than about policy," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

The parent trigger bill would let parents convert struggling traditional schools into charter schools, or even demand the school be closed. The House version also prevents children at failing schools from having ineffective or out-of-field teachers for two consecutive years.

Supporters, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, have said the measure would allow parents to play a larger role in local schools.

But the Florida PTA, a coalition of grass roots parent groups, school districts and the state teachers' union have fought the bill, saying it does little more than enable for-profit charter school management companies to cannibalize struggling schools. They point to California, where a similar law has prompted bitter court battles.

The result has been a knock-down, drag-out that's divided Democrats and Republicans in Tallahassee.

On Thursday, all 44 House Democrats voted against the bill. They were joined by seven Republicans, including Reps. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Ed Hooper of Clearwater.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the Miami Republican sponsoring the bill, said he didn't know why the seven had voted against his bill, but added that he wasn't disappointed.

"In the end, parents will have a seat at the table," Trujillo said, predicting the bill would wind up on Gov. Rick Scott's desk.

The parent trigger bill wasn't the only education proposal to win the support of the lower chamber on Thursday. Lawmakers also approved a bill that would allow school districts to provide more online classes to students.

Another education bill that passed gives flexibility to high-performing charter schools, while putting a handful of new accountability measures in place.

The charter school bill originally included a provision requiring traditional public schools to share unused space with charter schools. But the idea met resistance from school district leaders, who said they needed the vacant classrooms for storage and community-meeting space.

Rep. George Moraitis, the Fort Lauderdale Republican sponsoring the bill, stripped that language from the proposal before Thursday's vote. He indicated that the Senate wants to take a different approach to sharing unused space in public facilities.

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"There are some great things in the bill having to do with accountability and transparency," Moraitis said. "Those are the most important provisions."

The charter schools bill passed 87-29, with a handful of Democrats voting in support.

House Democrats had only harsh words for the parent trigger proposal.

"I reject your premise that parents do not have a voice," said Rep. Cynthia Stafford of Miami during Thursday's debate. "Not only do parents have a voice, they have a seat at the table."

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, said the bill would "open the flood gates for the privatization of our public schools."

While Saunders and other Democrats lamented the idea of private companies making a profit in schools, some Republicans celebrated it.

"Folks, many of us run small businesses," Moraitis said. "I've never heard of making a profit being a bad thing. This is the United States of America."

Even though the bill passed in the House, a handful of PTA members, who traveled to Tallahassee to oppose the measure, said they were encouraged.

"We had seven more votes (against the proposal) than we thought we would have," legislative chairwoman Mindy Gould said. "Will we continue to fight this in the Senate? You bet."