Florida 'Parent Trigger' Bill For Failing Schools Rejected By State Senate

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., March 9 (Reuters) - Florida's state Senate narrowly killed a bill on Friday that would have allowed parents with children in failing public schools to leapfrog their local school boards and take control.

The controversial "Parent Trigger" plan that backers said would empower parents by allowing them to direct efforts to turn schools around needed a simple majority vote to pass, but the measure failed with an even 20-20 tie.

It would have given parents a slate of options that included turning schools over to for-profit charter school companies.

Teachers union representatives and local school boards hailed the proposal's defeat, but acknowledged the issue would likely return in next year's legislative session.

Eight Republicans joined the 12-member Democratic bloc to stymie the effort pushed by Republican legislative leaders and Republican former Governor Jeb Bush.

Backers said the measure was a response to a recalcitrant school system that is slow to change and deaf to the needs of their respective communities.

Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the bill, told lawmakers that legislation was needed to ensure "every one of our schools is as great as the schools where your grandchildren go... where your children go."

She added, "We shouldn't rest until every school is at that level."

Critics said the measure would have driven another nail into public education and teacher unions, and would have benefited for-profit charter school companies that lack the same accountability standards as traditional public schools.

"With every fiber of my being, I will fight to see that my schools will not be taken over by private enterprise," said Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat.

The proposal would have ramped up accountability standards on a number of fronts, but the most controversial measure, by far, dealt with failing schools.

Florida schools are graded "A" through "F" based on student performance on standardized tests.

The proposal would have required that parents be notified if their children's school earned an "F." If there was no improvement within a year, parents could have dictated what would happen, if 51 percent of them agreed.

They still would have been limited to certain options laid out in federal law, and the plan would have been subject to Department of Education approval.

Among their options, parents could have forced the school district to transfer students to other schools, close the school and re-open it as a charter school with a new governing board running it, or contract with an outside management group to run it.

The bill was being pushed by a number of charter school groups and the California-based Parent Revolution group that spearheaded efforts in that state in 2010. Three states, Texas, Mississippi and California have seen similar efforts. (Reporting By Michael Peltier; Editing by Paul Thomasch)