Death of ‘Parent Trigger Bill’ Blocks Promising New Approach to Reforming Failed Schools

March 13, 2012 ~ by: Will Patrick
The Capitol Vanguard

 TALLAHASSEE – An effort to improve some of Florida’s most intractable failing schools died on the Senate floor last Friday in a down-to-the-wire 20-20 vote.

Senate bill 1718, the Parent Empowerment in Education bill, commonly known as the “Parent Trigger” bill, failed to pass in the waning hours of the 2012 legislative session’s final day.  The defeat was a bitter pill for advocates of school choice as well as concerned parents of students, many of whom are from low-income households and have no other way to improve their children’s educational prospects.

But with no procedure in the Florida Senate’s rules to break a deadlocked final vote, supporters could only watch as the bill’s opponents cheered and congratulated each other on killing a major legislative attempt to reform Florida’s worst schools.

SB 1718 would have allowed parents of children in “F” rated public schools to petition their school districts for one of four improvement options:

  1. Converting a failed school to a district-managed turnaround school by implementing a reform plan approved by the Commissioner of Education;
  2. Reassigning students to another school and monitoring the individual progress of each reassigned student;
  3. Closing the failed school and reopening it as one or more charter schools, each with a governing board that has a demonstrated record of effectiveness; or
  4. Contracting with an outside entity that has demonstrated a record of effectiveness in operating schools.

A simple majority of parents, or 51 percent, could have opted for the changes.

The bill also would have given parents additional accountability measures, including access to teacher personnel-evaluations.  Parents in underperforming schools would have had the “right to be informed” of the performance rating of each teacher assigned to their child.  They would have also been notified if their child was being assigned to a teacher who had received two consecutive annual unsatisfactory ratings.

Opponents, mostly unions and their political allies, contended that the reforms were about “attacking” and “humiliating” teachers.  Some teacher advocacy groups held that “making rankings public undermines the trust” teachers need to do their jobs.  And in a press conference a few days prior to the final vote, a spokeswoman for 50th No More went so far as to say the Parent Trigger legislation was a “bad faith effort,” thus framing the issue as a conflict between teachers and legislators, as opposed to improving failed schools within the status quo.  Arguably, these same groups command a monopoly over the nearly $20 billion annual education budget and are opposed to competition.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Nan Rich (D-Weston) appeared elated and visibly emotional as the tie vote was displayed on the chamber voting board.  She was immediately embraced by U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL-20), the controversial Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.  Both are supported by the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest teachers union, and are staunch advocates for the 140,000 member special interest.

Leading up to the vote, Senator Rich attempted to galvanize public sentiment by decrying, “[the bill] has everything to do with laying the groundwork for the hostile corporate takeover of public schools throughout Florida.”  However, with over 3,000 public schools in Florida, the “Parent Trigger” bill would have only affected 27 if it were enacted this year.  But as schools improve and the standardized grading system raises minimum requirements, more underperforming schools could sink to an “F” ranking and qualify for the improvement options.

Sen. Lizabeth Benacquisto (R-Ft. Myers), the bill’s sponsor, said she was fighting to “acknowledge a parent’s voice when it comes to choosing…” and “…I’ll not rest until every failing school is not a failing school.”

The bill was a priority agenda item of Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Melbourne).  He suffered another bruising defeat however at the hands of a group of eight Republicans who rebelled to join all twelve Democrats to sink the bill.  Five of the eight previously joined forces with a united Democratic caucus only a few weeks earlier to kill a prison privatization plan slated to save Florida taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually.

One former senior legislator (who asked not to go on record) questioned how Senate President Mike Haridopolos lost control of his caucus, saying, “Mike is not a weak leader, but he allowed a few of his members to take over.”  Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey) appeared to lead the group of rebellious senators in calculated revolts throughout the session, giving them enormous power to sink or pass bills as they became the deciding votes.  After the privatization debacle Haridopolos stripped Fasano of his chairmanship and committee assignments, but the effort failed along with other agenda items.