Parent trigger bill on failing schools a national trend
State Rep. Mike Fasano calls it “corporate welfare.”
Hillsborough County school board member Candy Olson labels it a “solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist.”
In the state Legislature, it's known as the parent empowerment or parent trigger bill.
And it could be changing the way children are educated in districts across the state beginning next school year.
Passed last week by the Florida House, the bill would allow the parents of a failing school, one graded F by the state Department of Education, to petition the school district to allow a charter school to take over.
Such a petition would have to be signed by 51 percent of the parents at any failing school. Backers of the bill say only about 25 schools statewide would be covered by the changes; none of those is in Hillsborough County.
It's backed by groups such as the Foundation for Florida's Future, chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. It's opposed by groups including the PTA, the NAACP, the Florida School Boards Association and educators across the state.
It's a growing trend nationwide. California, Texas, Louisiana, Connecticut and Mississippi all have versions in place.
“It's the parents who ultimately make the decision on what it is they would like to see put in place to really turn around and transform their school,” said David Phelps with Parent Revolution, a California group that helped get a similar measure approved that is reshaping some troubled inner-city Los Angeles schools.
The Florida bill is not just about charter schools taking over troubled schools, said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future. There are other options, she said: closing the school and transferring students to a higher performing school; implementing in-district reform; or allowing a private management company to run the school.
“The foundation does not believe one school format is better than the other,” Levesque said. “We believe in high-quality school options — a menu of options — for Florida students.”
She also pointed out that the year after a school gets an F grade, it has a second year to come up with a plan to turn things around. If the grade does not improve, she said, parents can act to put one of the four options into place.
Critics of the Florida effort say the move is being pushed not by parents but by special-interest groups from outside the state, including those they say would profit from such a measure being passed.
“Florida should not be handing over buildings that were built by the taxpayers of Florida to companies who trade on the New York Stock Exchange,” Fasano said.
Last year, the Republican lawmaker from New Port Richey was one of those instrumental in keeping the measure from passing. After the House approved the bill in 2012, his no vote led to a tie in the Senate, where he formerly served. The tie vote meant the measure failed.
Fasano said he doesn't have a problem with charter schools, but he likes the nonprofit mom-and-pop variety.
If the Senate approves the bill, he envisions a long line of for-profit charter schools perched at the state's border July 1.
“What we see now are big corporations that run charter schools — corporations that are in the business of making money,” the state lawmaker said. “That worries me greatly.”
Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association in Tallahassee, also is concerned.
“None of the parent groups is interested in this approach,” Pudlow said. “The parents here in Florida are not complaining about not being involved in the schools. This is being financed by the charter school companies. They are the ones most interested in this.”
Pudlow's biggest worry is that future legislative bodies could change the rules. It might be schools with an F grade now, but later, D schools or even C schools could fall under the measure, he said.
“Once the camel's nose is under the tent, it's a lot easier to get things changed,” Pudlow said.
He and Olson think there are plenty of opportunities for parents to be involved in schools, including PTA, school advisory councils and other groups.
They also say that there are numerous options for parents who want to yank a child out of a failing school. They have a host of options for moving them elsewhere within the public school district, they said.
“The idea this is going to fix anything is bogus,” Olson said.
Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, agrees.
“I don't think it's a good thing for kids or parents,” she said. “If a school is turned over to a charter school, there is no guarantee their child could get into that school.”
Bonita Wright, president of the PTA at Robles Elementary in Tampa, where most students qualify for free and reduced lunch, doesn't want her sons' school turned into a charter, even if the school is considered a D school.
“I see where charters can be beneficial at times. But I also see charters operating more like a business,” said Wright, whose twin boys are in fifth grade. “My kids have attended this school since they were 3 years old. I have the trust and faith that my kids are getting a quality education here.”
Phelps, with the Parent Revolution group in California, said not every group of parents that petitions for a change wants to go with the charter option.
In the Watts section of Los Angeles, a school simply wants to work with the district to see how to turn the school around.
“The parents really like many of the teachers at the school,” Phelps said. “They want to work with the school district and make internal reforms and changes.”
Another school district, he said, will have a charter operate the upper grades of a school while the district retains control of the lower grades.
No matter the outcome in Florida, Olson and others invested in the public school system say they feel as if they are being attacked.
“Some people think it's popular to beat up on teachers and schools,” Olson said. “There isn't an interest in fixing, there is an interest only in blaming.”