Parental Trigger Hits the Florida Senate

Throughout Florida's legislative session, education reform groups and teachers' unions have done battle over proposals to pass a very controversial  "parent trigger" law. The state House has already passed its version of the measure and the state Senate is schedule to vote on it tomorrow, while opponents make a last ditch effort to kill the bill. With the session ending on Friday, the stakes for both sides are high. 

As I wrote last week, Florida has long been at the forefront of the "reform movement" championing charter schools and doing away with teacher protections, in favor of merit pay and more comprehensive evaluations. The parent trigger idea takes things a step farther. If a school has received a failing rating for consecutive years (two in the Senate version, three in the House), a majority of parents could organize in support of an improvement option: replacing the principal, replacing the entire staff, closing the school, or turning it into a charter school. Florida State Impact has a handy point-by-point guide on the measures.

Advocates argue the measure empowers parents to get involved and find solutions, while opponents say it will open the door to charter companies looking to make a profit. Ironically, however, several of the groups opposing parental trigger say that parents have been cut off or denied the right to speak at three hearings on the bill. Support has not fallen neatly on party lines, with some Republicans opposing the measure. The state PTA, with 333,000 members, strongly opposes the measure as do teachers' groups.

Meanwhile, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Florida's Future have pushed hard to pass the bill. There's an obvious appeal to parents working together to effect change in their schools, and giving parents in bad school districts an opportunity to bring improvement. However, it's far from clear that parental trigger laws actually empower parents—many cases have left groups of parents feeling manipulated.

Things have hardly gone smoothly in California, the only state to pass such a "trigger" measure. The first attempt at prompting a trigger occured in Compton in 2010, where a petition was presented to turn low-performing McKinley Elementary School into a charter school. Things quickly turned sour; different sides accused others of intimidation and the school board even tried to go through a messy signature verification process. The petition was defeated on technical grounds in the end.

More recently at Desert Trails Elementary in the Adelanto Unified Elementary School District, more than 70 percent of parents signed on to a petition. Shortly thereafter a sizable number asked to rescind their support, saying they had been confused by the presence of two petitions—one to shut down the school, the other simply to improve it. Meanwhile, pro-trigger parents have argued the rescission forms were altered or forged. The school board ultimately rejected the petition. The Los Angeles TImes has called for a revision of the law in light of such complications

Despite the results in California, Florida is hardly the only state considering a parent trigger law—the Arizona House has already passed a similar measure and Michigan is considering its own version. Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal is also pushing a trigger bill. But unlike those states, Florida lawmakers only have a few more days to make their decision.

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