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Parental ‘trigger’ bill dies in Fla. Senate

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A bill that would have let parents trigger turnaround plans for failing public schools through a petition drive died Friday on the floor of the Florida Senate.

The "Parent Empowerment in Education Act" (SB 1718) failed for lack of a majority in a 20-20 vote. With Friday as the last day of the legislative session, the issue must wait for revival till next year.

With the bill's fate unclear to the very end, Senate President Mike Haridopolos drew out the suspense as he held up the vote for Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, who was absent from the floor. She voted for the bill.

The measure had engendered hurt feelings and bitter debate in the session's waning days.

Supporters, including former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, said it would encourage parents to get involved in school affairs.

The plan would have applied only to schools — currently 18 — that received 'F' grades two years in a row as measured by students taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

Its critics, both Republicans and Democrats among them, countered that it was a back-door way to give public schools to private, for-profit educational companies.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican, noted that lobbyists for charter school companies were watching the debate from the Senate gallery.

"Thousands and thousands of parents out there are pleading with us, 'please, please don't do this,'" said Lynn, the Senate's most fervent opponent of the bill. "They want to work with our schools, not just turn them over. We haven't given them a chance."

Florida would have joined California, Mississippi and Texas as states that have "parental trigger" laws. Under the Florida version, a school district would have been required to put a turnaround plan into action if a majority of a school's parents supported it by signing a petition.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, said parents should have the right to demand that their children perform at the highest academic levels they can. And school districts will ensure any turnaround plans approved fit the bill, she added.

"You can demand change," Flores said. "That change is only going to happen if the district approves it."

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Wellington Republican sponsoring the bill, said her bill offered hope and fairness to parents and children who suffer by being in a failing school.

"I ask you to join me in making sure that our kids don't have to keep taking one for the team," Benacquisto said.

Shirley Ford, a member of California's pro-trigger Parent Revolution group, said the bill's failure was "disappointing, but certainly not surprising." Ford had come to Florida this month to lobby for the measure.

"We have seen time and time again that those who have power now are willing to do virtually anything to stop parents from ever having power," Ford said, referring to teachers' unions and their lobbyists.

The Florida Education Association, which represents about 140,000 teachers and other public school employees, noted that the bill died in a short post on its website. FEA president Andy Ford was not immediately available for comment.

"This bill was nothing more than an attempt to dismantle and defund our public schools through privatization, ultimately destroying public education as we know it," said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat.

"If supporters were truly committed to 'empowering parents,' they'd commit the necessary money to improve our public schools, recruit the very best teachers, and reward all those who have been working day after day to educate our children despite overwhelming odds," she said.


Follow James L. Rosica on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jlrosica