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  1. Education

'Parent trigger' bill stirs praise, fear over what it means for Florida public schools

Karen Francis-Winston joined the advisory committee at her child's school, intent on improving academics and discipline.

Things did get better at the Ocala middle school, but she always wished she had more leverage. Francis-Winston specifically wants a "parent-trigger'' law that would force public school administrators to heed the wishes of moms and dads.

"Right now, there's not that fear," she said. "The fact that they know I could be pushing the parent trigger would make them move faster than they would have."

She may get her wish this year.

The "Parent Empowerment Act" — legislation with its roots in California — is gaining traction in the Florida Legislature, despite concerns that it might open the door to privately run charter schools taking over traditional ones.

Opponents argue the bill, which has the backing of big business and former Gov. Jeb Bush, is really a way for charter school companies to persuade unsuspecting parents to turn on their public school.

"It's just a method for uninformed, inactive parents to be used to shut schools down," said Rita Solnet, a Palm Beach parent and cofounder of Parents Across America, which advocates against school privatization.

"This is very bad for our community."

• • •

Here's how the parent trigger bill would work:

• If at least half of the parents at a low-performing school sign a petition, they could impose a plan to turn around the school with measures that could include replacing much of the staff, converting the school to charter status or even closing it.

• Parents would be guaranteed that their children would not have teachers rated "unsatisfactory" or "needs improvement" in two consecutive years.

The concept has lately lost steam nationally, after having been proposed in several states. So supporters are looking to Florida to revive interest. The bill has passed one committee in the Senate and two in the House, most recently on Friday.

Lining up against the bill are groups such as the Florida PTA, Orlando-based Fund Education Now, Support Dade Schools, Save Duval Schools and Jacksonville-based 50th No More.

"They try to sell it as a piece of grass roots legislation," said Colleen Wood of Save Duval Schools. "It's more Astroturf."

Solnet noted that when lawmakers rolled out the bill in late January, parents were invoked, but they weren't there.

Instead, speakers included representatives of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, all firm supporters of vouchers and charters.

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Republican from Miami, insists that his bill would give parents a "more meaningful voice" in school reform. Opponents, citing the measure's supporters and history, say they don't buy that.

• • •

In California, the first state to adopt a parent trigger law, the initiative was pushed by Parent Revolution, a group started by a charter firm with backing from conservative foundations. It has been invoked in only two schools, with no final resolution so far.

Just two other states — Texas and Mississippi — have adopted parent trigger laws. In Indiana, the idea nearly passed until some lawmakers tried to tie it to vouchers and ending teacher tenure.

Linda Serrato, a Parent Revolution organizer, said critics miss the point in arguing that the aim is to enrich private firms.

"It's really about what the parents want," she said.

Quite often, Serrato observed, parents don't want drastic change, just for administrators to seriously consider their input. Using the law, they can band together to push for reforms.

• • •

Wendy Howard, a Pasco County mom who heads the Florida chapter of the National Coalition for Public School Options, sees the bill as a way to guarantee parents a seat at the table.

"Everyone agrees that parents should be as involved as possible in their child's education," Howard said. "This bill outlines specific ways that parents can not only be involved, it empowers them with information and tools to make a difference."

She recently convened state leaders in online, charter and other forms of school choice to talk up the legislation. StudentsFirst, a national organization run by Gov. Rick Scott adviser Michelle Rhee, also is organizing Florida parents behind the bill.

"Why would anyone resist giving parents information about their child's education, or giving them the power to say 'Enough is enough?' " asked StudentsFirst vice president Tim Melton.

Fran Connerney, whose son is a Hillsborough County second-grader, said he likes the idea of notifying parents "if their teacher is not up to par."

"If you know going in this teacher has had two bad reports … you might want to think about moving" your kids out, he said.

He is not keen on the petition provision, though.

"School board members are elected for a reason," he said.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat who also heads the state's superintendents association, asked sponsors to work with him on a compromise.

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out the more parental involvement you have, the better for children," he said in a committee meeting, where he voted for the bill.

Still, he said, "there is potential for misuse of this. None of us can allow that to happen."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.