Will Florida Lawmakers Empower Parents Whose Kids Are Stuck in Bad Schools?
Robert Sanchez contributed to this article.
Will 2013 be the year when Florida joins the growing list of states enacting “parent trigger laws”? Seven other states – implausibly including union-dominated California – have passed these kinds of laws, which typically empower parents whose children attend a chronically failing school to conduct a vote on whether (and how) to reorganize it.
A year ago school reform advocates in Florida introduced such legislation. Titled the “Parent Empowerment Act,” the bill would have allowed parents to vote for changes in schools that had received an F-rating for three consecutive years under Florida’s grading system, which is based the performance of a school’s pupils on standardized tests.
The options the bill provided for parents included closing and reopening the failing school as a charter school, reassigning its students to schools with higher ratings, or even outsourcing management of the school to one of the private companies that specialize in this field.
More commonly referred to as the “parent trigger bill,” the measure easily passed in the House, where Republicans held an 81-39 majority. However, on the final day of the 2012 legislative session, the bill died in the Senate on a 20-20 tie vote – despite support from Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The 2012 version of the bill died when eight of the Senate’s 28 Republicans joined with the Democrats in voting against the bill – a move that many political observers attributed primarily to a buildup of intraparty hostility having more to do with personal rancor than with policy preferences. Only three of those Republicans who voted No on the bill are still in the Senate.
Earlier this month, Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) reintroduced Parent Empowerment, which could take effect as early as July if it passes. The bill was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s education subcommittees and will likely see the floor of the Senate once more.
“When you give parents the opportunity to get involved and do what’s best for their kids, it’s a win,” said Stargel. Even so, the bill is vigorously opposed by the teachers union and, paradoxically, by the Florida Parent Teacher Association, which is often allied with the union.
While supporters of the bill argue that parents should have a more active role in their children’s education, especially those whose children have been assigned to failing schools, opponents claim that the measures currently in place, including No Child Left Behind, are sufficient. Even so, since 2010, seven states — including Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas as well as California – have passed similar legislation.
One source of concern for the teachers union is that the Parent Empowerment Act also gives parents some options if they receive notification that their child has been assigned to a teacher who had received an “underperforming” evaluation for two consecutive years. The alternatives would include reassignment to an on-line teacher rated as “effective” or to a different school that has a proven track record of success.
House Speaker Will Weatherford said he expects the bill to pass once again in the House. Former Governor Bush has been in Florida rallying support for the bill, meeting earlier this month with Speaker Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz to discuss education reform.
Now serving as Chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Bush is credited with leading a vigorous school reform effort during his governorship (1999-2007). The results have been evident as Florida’s ranking in state-to-state comparisons of pupil achievement rose into the top ten after being mired for decades in the middle of the pack.
Committee deliberations on the bill are tentatively scheduled to begin on March 6, the second day of the 2013 legislative session. If a bill reaches Governor Scott’s desk, Florida could well become the eighth state to pass a parent trigger law.
In addition to supporting this reform, Governor Scott is also seeking more money for education in order to give teachers a salary increase after several lean years and to provide a small stipend for supplies so they won’t have to pay out of their own pocket, as many dedicated teachers reportedly have been doing.
If Florida does pass a parent trigger law, however, the Governor – as head of the branch of government assigned the duty of ensuring that the state’s laws are duly executed – may face a new challenge in the form of union opposition.
To appreciate why, this illuminating Wall Street Journal editorial from a year ago illustrates the lengths to which opponents of these kinds of laws will go to prevent the empowerment of parents, whose main involvement in the education of their children is evidently to conduct fund-raising bake sales for their school’s docile PTA — and then to shut up.
Harassment and altered documents at Desert Trails Elementary.
March 2, 2012
For over a year, teachers unions and their allies have used bureaucratic games and intimidation to fight “parent-trigger” school reform in California. Now comes evidence that they may have falsified documents.
In January, a group of parents in the Mojave Desert town of Adelanto filed petitions to “trigger” changes at their children’s failing elementary school. That’s their right under a 2010 California law, provided the school’s academic conditions are dire enough and a majority of parents support pulling the trigger. Few dispute that Desert Trails Elementary fails its students, yet last week the Adelanto school district ruled that the trigger drive lacks majority support because 97 parents rescinded their original petitions.
But based on interviews we’ve conducted and sworn affidavits we’ve reviewed, it’s clear that many parents were harassed into rescinding.
In the Desert Trails parking lot and at front doors across Adelanto, strangers confronted parents and spread untruths about the trigger drive: that it would force the immediate closure of Desert Trails, for example, or result in the firing of all teachers, or cause certain children to be expelled. Some parents heard the trigger drive was an embezzlement scheme. Others had their immigration status questioned.
Trigger supporters suspect the malign influence of the California Teachers Association. Such bullying fits into its familiar anti-trigger playbook, and the untruth squads (which generally refused to identify themselves) pinpointed parents and ginned up rescissions with amazing efficiency over merely a few days.
At least three Adelanto parents have also signed affidavits swearing that the rescission documents bearing their signatures were doctored before being delivered (in photocopied form) to the district.
“I am absolutely sure,” reads the affidavit of one mother who refused to have her name published for fear of retribution, “that I did not check any of the boxes on the form claiming that I was misled, intimidated or bribed by the Desert Trails Parents Union,” which is the group that supports parent trigger. Yet her form on file with the district makes exactly these claims—a remarkable coincidence given the district’s rule that it would honor rescissions only if they cited such justifications.
We don’t know how many rescissions were falsified; the first two cases came to light only because someone was sloppy enough to file two versions of the same parent’s rescission, one without, and one with, boxes checked. But these cases cast doubt on the whole bunch, and the onus is on the district to prove their validity. Working with pro bono lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis, the parents have called for investigations by the San Bernardino district attorney and sheriff—and soon, before any crucial documents suddenly go missing.
Some 20 other states are considering parent-trigger laws, so Adelanto’s experience is a harbinger. California passed its version precisely to give parents the ability to organize and challenge entrenched union and bureaucratic power. If those powers-that-be can get away with intimidation and tricks to preserve the status quo, then the reform is a farce.