Florida Senate kills proposal to let parents demand changes at failing public schools.

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMay 1, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- The controversial parent trigger bill died a dramatic legislative death Tuesday the same way it did last year: in a surprise tie vote in the Florida Senate during the final week of the session.

"The second time is just as sweet," said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford, who helped lead the charge against the proposal. "I'm happy that the Legislature stepped up and did what's right for the state of Florida."

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would have let parents demand major changes at failing public schools, including having the school transformed into a charter school.

Supporters said it would

have empowered parents to play a greater role in their child's education. But opponents, including the teachers' union and a coalition of parent groups, saw the proposal as a way for private charter-school companies to take over struggling schools.

Most observers expected the parent trigger to win approval in the upper chamber Tuesday. It had been watered down by an amendment enabling school boards to override parent demands. The language addressed concerns about local control raised by state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and the Florida School Boards Association.

Still, six Republicans joined the 14 Senate Democrats in opposing the bill: state Sens. Charlie Dean, Inverness; Nancy Detert, Venice; Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Miami; Greg Evers, Baker; Rene Garcia, Miami; and Jack Latvala, Clearwater.

It was déjà vu for Dean and Detert, who were part of the bipartisan coalition that defeated the proposal last year.

Supporters believed they had the votes to pass the bill this time around because several senators who had opposed it were no longer in the Legislature due to term limits and redistricting. The chief advocate, former Gov. Jeb Bush, told reporters as late as February that he was confident the trigger law would pass.

Bush's prediction seemed likely when the House approved the bill earlier this month.

But controversy followed the trigger bill as it made its way to the Senate floor.

Last week, a pro-trigger video surfaced, purporting to be produced by a grassroots group known as the Sunshine Parents. It later came to light that the video was produced by Parent Revolution, a California organization that promotes parent trigger laws nationwide. What's more, the Sunshine Parents were found to have strong ties to Bush's education foundation.

Simultaneously, questions emerged about an online petition allegedly signed by 1,300 Florida residents in support of the trigger. The Herald/Times reached 360 of the people whose names appeared on the document; 42 denied having signed it and 10 said they were uncertain if the signature was their own.

The education nonprofit StudentsFirst has said the signatures are authentic. Still, the petitions and the Sunshine Parents were used against the bill during Tuesday's debate on the Senate floor.

State Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, said the Senate had seen "one or two parent organizations come forward and tell us that they want this bill."

"Then, we came to find out that the signatures that were on these so-called petitions actually weren't signed by people who support this issue," Clemens said. "How can we trust this process that allows parents to petition to change their schools into a corporate school instead of a public school?"

Other state senators made the case many provisions in the parent trigger bill already exist in state law.

Parents, for example, can petition to have a school converted to a charter school so long as half of the teachers are also on board.

Detert said the legislation would give more taxpayer dollars to charter-school management companies, and pointed to examples of financial mismanagement at charter schools across the state.

The arguments convinced Diaz de la Portilla, Evers, Garcia and Latvala to vote against the bill, despite having voted for it last year.

"Sen. Detert was very persuasive," Latvala said. "I didn't see any need for the legislation."

Said Diaz de la Portilla: "I didn't have a single legitimate parent group tell me they wanted it."

Garcia's reasoning: "The governor would have vetoed it anyway."

It isn't exactly clear what Gov. Rick Scott, who is up for re-election in 2014, would have done with the bill. Signing it into law wouldn't have helped him with women voters or rank-and-file teachers. But vetoing it would have cost points with Bush and conservative lawmakers.

In a statement, Melissa Sellers, the governor's communications director, said: "We certainly believe in the role parents play in the process of advocating for and improving the education of children. However, we had some concerns with the bill the Senate considered today."

Stargel said she was "disappointed" the governor wouldn't have a chance to weigh in.

"The Senate just told parents, 'We know what's best for your children. We don't need your input,'" she said.

But Mindy Gould of the Florida PTA and the other parents who fought against the legislation savored their second victory in as many years.

"I feel this (is a win) for every single parent who called his or her legislator and said this isn't what we want," Gould said. "That's empowerment."

Herald/Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

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