Florida Parents Push Back Against For-Profit Schools

The controversial "parent trigger" bill has been a hot topic in discussions over education policy in Florida recently. The Florida Senate blocked a piece of legislation last Friday that would give parents - and likely private business interests - significantly more influence over the state school system.

The story highlights an increasingly prominent theme in Florida state education - where those in favor of market-based educational policies are pitted against those who wish to see state-funded education remain as the status quo.

Modeled after education policy in California, the bill would have allowed parents to vote on what to do with 'persistently failing schools' within their respective school districts.

This bill demonstrated the continued influence of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who was heavily involved in drafting the legislation. Bush's organization, Foundation for Florida's Future, sponsored the bill, which raised the ire of many lawmakers and parent groups.

Explaining the rationale behind her organization's proposed legislation, Communications Director Jaryn Emhof, explained that "under 'No Child Left Behind', federal law outlines four things that can happen when a school is labelled a 'persistently-failing' school. You can convert to a charter, you can bring in outside management, you can have in-district reform, or you can re-assign students out to different schools."

Currently in Florida, in the case of a school that continually fails to meet federal standards established under 'Race to the Top' by the Obama administration, "the school leaders, teacher representatives, and the school district get together to pick an option. What our bill did is say that parents should have a seat at the table so they can be part of the discussion over which of the four things are chosen."

Emhof emphasized that the parent trigger bill was designed to be much broader than simply a proposal for school privatization, but that "everyone focused on [only] one of those options, and that was the charter school option.

"It's the juiciest one, so to speak," she commented.

The bill passed the Florida legislature fairly easily; however, the legislation was defeated by the narrowest of margins in the Senate - a 20-20 tie - in a vote that saw many Senate Republicans break rank and vote against shifting significant control over school policy away from state school boards.

The bill died in large part due to the opposition of Senate minority leader, Democrat Nan Rich, who said that "the legislation was billed as a 'parent empowerment' legislation, and I think it has nothing to do with empowering parents - it has everything to do with laying the groundwork for a takeover of our public schools by private, for-profit, charter-management companies."

She had particular trouble with the language involved in the bill, stating that "It's disingenuous to talk about parent-empowerment legislation. The people who would be running the schools would not be the parents. Actually there would be less parent empowerment under that scenario than there is today."

Rich was clear about her position on the issue, emphasizing that she was concerned with the full scope of the controversy involved with this legislation and not just with the existence of charter schools in themselves.

"This is not about charter schools; we have many good charter schools. This is about private for-profit charter management companies," she said. "This is about people who want to make their way into the pipeline of the billions of dollars in annual state funding and property tax creditors. It's about a direct attack on public education and one that dismantles and de-funds public education in favour of the private management companies."

Rich acknowledged the difficulties associated with perennially underperforming schools in Florida and the difficulties faced by school boards in fixing glaring problems. But the discussion over charter management companies missed the point, she said.

"Why don't we fund our public schools properly, and then maybe we can focus more on those failing schools and provide them with the resources they need?" she asked.

"All the legitimate parent organizations in the state are against this legislation."

Rita Solnet is the co-founder of Parents Across America, one such parent organization committed to improving the nation's public school system. She was heavily involved with the coalition responsible for "lobbying on behalf of so many parents and parent organizations" concerned with the legislation in Tallahassee last week.

Her group was most concerned with the damaging effects this bill could have on primary and secondary education in the state - most notably how the legislation could weaken the role of public school boards - and how it could open the door for questionable charter schools.

"We made sure we gave legislators a lot of information on the quality of charters. More than 50% of the charters [in Florida] are failing. And I know that in the United States 83% of charter schools do no better or worse than their local neighbourhood public schools. So why do we keep opening up more and more charter schools?

"Plus it's not cost-efficient because they only handle a couple hundred of kids," Solnet commented.

She described the Senate vote as "a very dramatic end to a rollercoaster week with this particular bill," and expressed considerable surprise over how close the vote came in. It was expected that all Democratic senators would withhold their support and it was unusual, Solnet emphasized, to have so many Republican senators vote against the bill.

"I think it's fascinating, " she said. "There were eight Republican senators who voted against this bill, and 12 Democrats, and that's unheard of in Florida for them not to vote the party line."

For Solnet, the Republican response said a lot about the legislation.

"For eight of them to cross over tells you what a lame bill it was to begin with," she said.

The Florida PTA has also voiced considerable opposition to the bill. Many parents have expressed concerns over potential policy shifts in favour of greater school privatization, and the corresponding shift of students away from the administration of state school boards. According to the FLorida PTA website, the organization is worried "about the flexibility charter schools have compared with traditional public schools," pointing out that "there is no level playing field" when private and public schools are in competition for student enrollment. The site also conveys parents' worry that "putting too much money into charter schools will create a two-tier education system" and the prospect of corporate-sponsored education for their children.

Although the Florida legislature and Senate have wrapped up their current sessions, members of the Foundation for Florida's Future are unlikely to be dissuaded by last Friday's outcome. When asked if she thought this issue would come up again in future legislative sessions, Emhof said she "wouldn't be surprised" if it did.

"I don't think it's the last we've seen of this policy, it's something that our foundation supports, so each year we put together a legislative agenda and we share it with our lawmakers to see if anyone is interested in filing bills based on that - and I anticipate we'll be doing it again this fall," she said.

At this point, one thing this controversial discussion has proven is that parents won't go down without a fight. They are highly engaged in educational policy in Florida and they know what they're talking about, something which did not escape the notice of Senator Rich:

"These parents are empowered and they showed it," Rich said. "It made me feel really good about democracy because it shows democracy is alive and well. These people are coming [to Tallahassee] and they're angry. They don't want any private companies coming in and taking over their schools."

Mike Lapointe is an independent writer based in Orlando, Florida. What area of American political life can you tell us more about? Contact us at www.offthebus.org.