TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that empowers parents.
A bill that hands public schools over to private interests.
A red herring.
No matter what you think of the so-called parent trigger proposal, one thing was made clear Thursday: The bill will be among the most contentious of the Legislative session.
The proposal, which would allow parents to petition for dramatic changes at failing public schools, including having a charter-school company take over, won the approval of a House education subcommittee Thursday by an 8-5 vote along party lines.
It was also the subject of a memo from Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to Rep. Carlos Trujillo and Sen. Kelli Stargel pointing out some potential pitfalls. Gov. Rick Scott acknowledged Bennett's memo had already made its way to his desk.
But perhaps most telling was the impassioned public testimony that preceded Thursday's vote.
Advocates, including representatives from the Foundation for Florida's Future, former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's education nonprofit, argued that the legislation would give parents a more prominent role in local school systems.
"As you look across the state of Florida, what you will see [is that] a lot of parents really want to do something about their schools," said former state Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat involved in the charter school movement.
But parent groups, school districts and the teachers' union slammed the bill, saying it was crafted for private education interests seeking to boost enrollment, receive additional money from the state, and assume control of taxpayer-funded school facilities.
"The Florida PTA feels very strongly that this is misleading the public and it could have devastating results to our kids," said Dawn Steward, the organization's vice president for education. "We want you to pull the bill, not the trigger."
The House subcommittee on choice and innovation in education debated the proposal for 30 minutes before all eight Republicans voted it up.
"This is giving a tool to parents in failing schools," said Rep. George Moraitis, a Fort Lauderdale Republican.
Controversy seems to follow the parent trigger. The law is already on the books in at least seven states and up for consideration in Georgia and Kentucky. In California, efforts to convert traditional schools into charter schools have prompted bitter court battles and scathing editorials. Last year, a Hollywood film cast the legislation in a favorable light.
It sparked fireworks in Florida when it first surfaced during last year's legislative session. Parent groups aligned themselves in opposition, prompting the Senate to kill the bill during a dramatic, last-day-of-session showdown.
This year, Bush and his foundation are determined to see the proposal through to Scott's desk. During a recent trip to Tallahassee, the former governor told reporters he was confident the bill would become law.
The proposal has been watered down some from last year. The new proposal would give the local school district the right to approve the parents' choice of reforms, which could also include converting the school to a district-managed turnaround school. In the case of a disagreement between the parents and the district, the state would make the final call.The bill also requires school districts to notify parents when their child's teacher is teaching out of his or her field of expertise, and to give parents information about alternative virtual learning options. And it prevents children from being assigned to ineffective teachers for two years in a row.
While it is still early in the session, observers believe the parent trigger has enough votes to pass the Republican-dominated House and Senate.
Scott could be the wildcard.
When asked about the bill Thursday, the governor played coy, saying he hadn't yet had a chance to review it. "When I look at it, I can give you my thoughts," he said.
Scott would not say what kind of counsel he had received from the education secretary, or whether he planned to veto the bill.
But Bennett, in his letter, criticized the legislation for shifting some responsibility from the local level to the State Board of Education.
"School boards should not have the ability to push the decision to the state," Bennett wrote. "They owe it to the parents to consider what they have to say without being able to avoid the tough decisions."
For all of the posturing, there are some who see the bill as a means to distract lawmakers and members of the public as other education policies are considered. They point to the fact that the charter school lobby has backed off of the trigger proposal, and is instead focusing on other priorities, such as winning additional funding for facilities and maintenance.
Additionally, a trigger mechanism already exists in Florida law. Unlike the current proposal, however, it requires a majority of teachers to also be on board. Parents at a public K-8 school on Key Biscayne tried to convert their school into a charter school earlier last week, but failed to win enough votes from teachers and parents.
Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association, the state's teachers union, said he believes the bill is about Bush's legacy. As governor, Bush pushed through sweeping education reforms, including putting in place a school-grading program.
"This bill is priority of the Foundation for Florida's Future," Wright said of the trigger. "It's just one more so-called reform that the folks from the foundation want to check off their Florida list."
The foundation's executive director, Patricia Levesque, refuted the claim.
"We support this bill because we believe it takes us to the next step of empowering parents," she said.