Senators take aim at parent triggerby Dara Kam | March 8th, 2012
The Senate is poised to close out the 2012 legislative session with a fiery debate over a controversial measure that would let parents decide the fate of failing schools after opponents scored several victories with amendments to the “parent trigger” bill late Thursday evening.
The proposal, based on one pushed in California by the “Parent Revolution,” would allow parents to decide on a turnaround option for schools graded “F” for at least three years in a row if more than 50 percent of parents sign petitions.
The petition process received the most attention Thursday night from opponents, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who say the signature-gathering is rife for shenanigans as experienced in California, which became the first in the nation with its “Parent Empowerment” proposition two years ago.
The parent trigger plan is backed by GOP leaders including Senate President Mike Haridopolos, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Several Los Angles-based Parent Revolution lobbyists, in the Capitol for weeks advocating for the proposal, were in the public gallery during a heated debate over the bill (SB 1718) Thursday night.
Opponents include teachers unions and a coalition of Florida parent-led groups including the PTA, also watching the two-hour debate from the gallery. The measure has already flared emotions and procedural maneuvering in the Senate.
Proponents beat down several amendments on 21-19 votes – including one that would have criminalized bribing parents to sign the petitions – indicating Friday’s vote will be close. But opponents, including Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, said they believe they have enough votes to kill the measure on a 20-20 tie.
The anti-parent trigger group repeatedly tried to make changes to the signature-gathering process that would have put it on a par with petition-gathering requirements included in a controversial election law passed last year and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
One change would have made it a misdemeanor to take or offer a bribe in exchange for a signature and made it a misdemeanor to falsify signatures. But opponents of that amendment called it overreaching, eliciting outrage from Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
“Are you kidding me? We put this in an election year last year people. We did this. But now it’s overreaching. It’s undemocratic. Are you kidding me?” Smith said. The amendment was defeated on a 21-19 vote.
But Rich scored a win with an amendment requiring that signatures be valid, undoing language in the original bill sponsored by Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers that would have allowed signatures submitted after the validation period to be accepted.
“If you don’t vote for this amendment, it means you condone fraud,” Rich, D-Weston, said.
Accusations of fraudulent signatures and coercion of parents are plaguing a parent trigger effort at a Mojave Desert school in California, where both sides are accusing each other of wrongdoing and a judge is considering open an investigation.
The Florida proposal would give parents a say in federal turnaround options for failing schools that include conversion into profit or non-profit charter schools or hiring for-profit management company to take them over, which critics say is part of an overall effort to privatize Florida’s public schools.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, failed to convince a majority to sign off on her plan requiring the charter schools to pay rent to school districts if they take over a failing school.
But she rallied enough votes to include a provision banning foreign nationals from owning or operating the charter schools.
Before the floor session wrapped up at 10 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner railed against his colleagues for objecting to giving parents more control over poor-performing schools.
“I know it’s late. And I know everybody’s emotional. But keep in mind what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about parents that are sending their children every day to an F school. Every day to an F school,” Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. “We’ve gotten off track here a little bit…These are F schools. These are just parents. Parents that want an opportunity to have their children go to a better school. We want to put a misdemeanor on them?”
Speaking against the bill, Sen. Larcenia Bullard invoked hanging chads, fraudulent petition-gathering campaigns in which dead people’s names were signed on petitions and other horribles.
“Trigger bill is double-barrel Glock,” Bullard, R-Miami, said.