access, choice, education reform, opportunity

Furor erupts over bills to let parents decide poorly performing schools’ fate

By Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel

Florida lawmakers want to give parents the power to dictate the future of poorly performing public schools, sparking criticism from parent advocates and others that the effort is part of a continuing campaign to privatize education.

Florida’sversion of a “parent trigger” law won favorable committee votes Tuesday in the Florida House and Senate.

The bills would allow parents — if more than 50 percent agree — to determine a “turnaround plan” for a struggling school. That could include turning it into a charter school or allowing a private-management firm to run it.

Between the two committee votes, the bills were praised at a Capitol news conference attended by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, as well as representatives of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, among others. Joining them were organizers from the California group known as Parent Revolution, which successfully pushed for that state’s first-in-the-nation parent trigger bill in 2010.

“It gives parents a stronger voice in the direction of the schools that are chronically failing — the direction of the schools that need intervention,” said Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, who is sponsoring the bill in the House.

But many local school advocates are opposed, saying such “parent empowerment” bills, as they are called, would undermine local school-board authority and turn public campuses over to privatebusinesses.

Seven parent groups, including the Florida PTA and the Orlando-based Fund Education Now, recently issued a joint statement against the bills, calling them misleading and misnamed.

If the bills become law, schools “built and wholly owned by the taxpayers of Orange County” could be lost to a “for-profit entity,” said Kathleen Oropeza, an Orlando mother and one of the founders of Fund Education Now.

It is a “rather cynical way to get the parent pull the trigger to basically open the way for a for-profit relationship that didn’t exist before,” she said.

A key provision in the bills (HB 1191 and SB 1718) would allow parents to determine an improvement plan for a school if it has performed poorly for three years. Parents would be allowed to take that action as long as 51 percent signed a petition. Their actions could even override the local school board.

“It does what we hear so often is needed in our schools: to engage and empower parents,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, the Senate sponsor.

State and federal law requires school boards to select from four improvement options for chronically struggling schools. This year, 27 schools statewide fit that category. None is in Central Florida, though some local schools fell into that group in the past few years.

The improvement options are: adopting a district-determined turnaround plan — historically the most popular; sending students to another school; turning the school into a charter; or letting an outside group manage it.

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