New parent trigger bill clears first hurdle in Florida House

Rep. Trujillo is a co-sponsor of the House parent trigger bill
Rep. Trujillo is a co-sponsor of the House parent trigger bill

The parent trigger bill is back in the Florida Legislature this year and, judging by the spirited 8-5 party line vote it got in its first committee stop Thursday, perhaps as contentious as ever. But unlike last year, some Florida parents and child advocates not only voiced support, but drove to Tallahassee to tell lawmakers in person.

Former Marion County teacher Karen Francis-Winston trekked 200 miles from Ocala with her daughter to testify in favor of the bill sponsored by Republican Reps. Michael Bileca and Carlos Trujillo.

Pastor Alfred Johnson came from Tampa,where he said he serves a low-income community.

“I don’t understand what’s the matter with empowering parents to make a recommendation,’’ he told the Choice & Innovation Subcommittee. “We’re doing nothing but recognizing they have a voice, a say in the process.’’

House Bill 867, with an identical version filed by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, allows parents with children in an F-rated school to petition the school district to consider a turnaround plan that could include bringing in a charter school operator. The petition would need signatures from a majority of parents.

The district can accept the parents’ plan or develop its own from a list of other options, like reassigning students to another school or creating a district-run turnaround school. If the district rejects the parent plan, it must submit both plans to the Florida Board of Education for review. If the BOE decides the parent plan offers a better chance at improving the school, then the district must implement that plan.

The bill also expands a parent notification law that requires the district to notify parents if their child is being taught by an out-of-field teacher or one with two consecutive “unsatisfactory’’ performance ratings. It directs the district to inform parents of available virtual education classes taught by teachers rated “effective’’ or “highly-effective.’’ It bars districts from assigning a student to a low-performing teacher two years in a row.

Last year, the parent-trigger bill passed the House, but was defeated in the Senate on a dramatic 20-20 tie. Many opponents of the initial legislation said they still have problems with the new bill, despite nearly a dozen amendments. They continued to suggest it was an attempt to privatize public schools.

“Who is this bill really for?’’ said Dawn Steward of the Florida PTA, who called the latest proposal misleading. “Isn’t it odd that one of the largest parent organizations did not bring this to you? We want you to pull the bill, not the trigger.’’

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, said he had received hundreds of emails from PTA members in Orange County and across the state. None were in favor of the bill.

“I have not had a single parent say, ‘I want this back,’ ’’ he said.

Jeff Wright of the Florida Education Association said the bill continues the legacy of former Gov. Jeb Bush and his Foundation For Florida’s Future.

“This bill isn’t about parent empowerment,” Wright said. “It’s a campaign slogan.’’

Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, also took a jab at Bush and the sweeping reforms he led.

“Are we saying that … the A+ plan has failed our students?’’ he said.

Patricia Levesque, the foundation’s executive director, said many of the reforms have resulted in academic success stories  – from more students graduating high school and more schools earning “A” and “B’’ state grades.

Despite those gains, “we still need to improve,’’ she said. “This bill is the next step.’’

The Republican lawmakers who passed the bill through its first committee stop agreed.

‘’All this bill does is allow parents to have a voice,’’ said Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover. “They deserve that right.’’

Other coverage from the Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, Associated Press, Tallahassee Democrat.

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.

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