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Parent Empowerment Triggers Debate

“‘Parent trigger’ bill triggering debate in Florida”
by Bill Kaczor, Associated Press
Miami Herald
March 5, 2012

A bill that would let parents “trigger” a turnaround plan for failing schools would cause disputes and dissension in Florida’s public schools, opponents said Monday.

That’s yet to be proven, but it is causing plenty of turmoil in the Florida Legislature as it has in California, where the idea originated.

The Florida PTA and other bipartisan opponents held a news conference Monday to criticize not only the bill that’s supported by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush but the way it’s been ramrodded through the GOP-controlled Legislature.

School officials would be required to adopt a turnaround plan if a majority of parents sign a petition.

Supporters say the “parent trigger” is a way to empower parents and encourage them to participate in school affairs. Critics contend it’s a ploy for handing public schools to private management or charter school companies.

“It has everything to do with laying the groundwork for the hostile, corporate takeover of public schools,” said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston. “Parents will divide against parents and even children will divide against children.”

Florida PTA Vice President Dawn Steward said corporations put the stockholders’ interest first.

“Their stockholders aren’t going to necessarily be children,” Steward said. “My stockholders are children and I’m a volunteer and I represent 330,000 voices.”

The trigger bill is being pushed by Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future and the California-based Parent Revolution. The group contends the legislation is not intended to promote charters, although that’s one turnaround option.

Parent Revolution spokeswoman Linda Serrato said it actually would add another step – the parents’ petition – to existing procedure for creating charters, which get public funding but are run by entities other than elected local school boards.

“So to put it in context, I’m a big bad for-profit charter school and I’m hell-bent on making millions of dollars,” Serrato said. “If that’s my objective, right now it’s much easier for me to just go through the normal Florida charter school law.”

The House already has passed a trigger bill (HB 1191), and what’s expected to be a close vote could come in the Senate as early as Tuesday.

One reason opponents are suspicious of Parent Revolution and its paid staffers is it initially received funding from a charter school company, Green Dot Public Schools.

Serrato said Green Dot no longer provides funding, which currently comes largely from foundations.

Another organization that’s promoting trigger bills is the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

“We can’t control what other people promote,” Serrato said. She said her organization has also drawn support from liberals in California.

The California law, though, is proving difficult to implement, causing acrimony on school campuses and legal fights.

The first parent-trigger campaign in Compton last year was defeated because of petition technical errors after a court battle with the school district and allegations of threats and harassment of parents by teachers, who stood to lose their jobs if the school was converted into a charter.

In Adelanto, about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, a similar scenario looms. Teachers mounted a vigorous campaign to counter the petition to convert Desert Trails Elementary School into a charter. There were problems with 121 signatures and dozens more parents rescinded their signatures, leaving the petition without the needed majority.

Serrato said some of the signatures had been illegally forged, which is something that cannot be blamed on the trigger law. Opponents say that’s what would happen in Florida, too, because the bill lacks petition-gathering safeguards.

“There’s a lot of room in this bill for some real shenanigans,” said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.

Critics also contend Florida has plenty of opportunity for parental empowerment through laws that allow students to transfer out of failing schools or obtain vouchers to attend private schools. Schools also have parent advisory councils and PTAs.

That’s not enough, Shirley Ford of Parent Revolution told the Budget Committee.

“When I was a PTA mom, it served its purpose,” the Los Angeles woman said. “We baked cookies, we raised money and all those things, but no real meaning to it.”

PTA officials said there’s much more to it in Florida, including advocating before local school boards and state lawmakers.

“We don’t need to import people from California,” Steward said. “Are they a good model?”

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