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Momentum Slows on School Choice Issues in Fla.

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 27, 2012 5 min read
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In a state regarded as among the most friendly to charter schools and school choice, Florida’s education overhaul advocates made limited headway on those issues during the recent legislative session.

The most prominent legislation pushed by such proponents—the “parent trigger” proposal officially named the Parent Empowerment Act—passed the House of Representatives but went down to defeat on a tie vote in the Senate, after fierce lobbying from Florida school boards and the state PTA over the session’s final days.

A separate proposal to require school districts to share locally raised revenues with charter schools in their jurisdictions for capital outlays on a per-student basis also failed to gain traction. Even a victory for school choice champions concerning a cap on scholarships financed by tax credits fell short of their objective in the session, which wrapped up March 9.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that things slowed down a little,” said Rep. William L. Proctor, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, referring to last year’s tumultuous session that involved issues of teacher collective bargaining.

He also said that debates over higher education issues took time away from policy initiatives related to K-12, even as legislators appropriated an additional $1 billion to public schools at the request of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican. (Legislators agreed to cut higher education funding by $300 million.)

Polarizing Debate

This year in the Sunshine State, the brightest and hottest lights were on the parent-trigger proposal, which centered on a dispute over whether the Parent Empowerment Act lived up to its name.

The parent-trigger bill would have allowed a majority of parents at a school to initiate a major restructuring at that school, including converting it to a charter, if they signed a petition to that effect. California’s trigger law includes the option to convert to a charter school or replace school staff.

Trigger advocates said strong-arm tactics of powerful teachers’ unions and other opponents, such as creating a big media campaign against the bill, were behind the fight to block the bill. Anti-trigger combatants said out-of-state organizations like Parent Revolution, a pro-trigger nonprofit group, were the puppeteers. (Parent Revolution receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of parent-engagement issues.)

Trigger opponents voiced concern that out-of-state, for-profit charter school organizations would not have to pay as much attention to public opinion as local school boards if they were to take control of schools under such a law.

Florida state Sen. Garrett Richter comforts fellow Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto after the parent-trigger proposal she sponsored was defeated on a tie vote on the last day of the 2012 legislative session. The bill would have let a majority of parents at a school spark a major restructuring, which could have included conversion to a charter.

They also stressed that under the trigger law, governor-appointed members of the state board of education could overrule a locally elected school board as to which school overhaul strategy ultimately would be selected.

Down the road, trigger opponents hope they can at least persuade pro-trigger legislators to incorporate safeguards into such legislation if it ultimately passes, such as allowing each school’s advisory council, which now consist of parents and other stakeholders, to have more oversight on petition efforts.

But Ruth Melton, the director of legislative relations for the Florida School Boards Association, sounded a skeptical note about the concept’s political future in Florida.

“By the time we see this again, we are likely to have a little more history on the fact that it is unlikely to succeed,” Ms. Melton said, citing the controversy the parent-trigger law has touched off in California.

The protests against the trigger bill represented “tens of thousands of hearts and minds who did not want an outside group to come in and lobby for legislation that we didn’t ask for that basically seeks to hand publicly owned assets over to privately owned entities,” said Kathleen Oropeza, the co-founder of Fund Education Now, an Orlando, Fla.-based group that is allied with the state PTA and other funding-advocacy groups and which organized parents to lobby against the bill.

But Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a nonprofit group in Tallahassee that lobbied for the bill along with other pro-trigger groups, said trigger foes unfairly turned the Parent Empowerment Act itself into an argument about charter schools, which were not intended to be the focus of the proposed measure.

Ms. Emhof said language in the Senate bill would have prohibited any for-profit groups from gathering signatures or paying others to gather signatures for parent petitions on school control.

“The opposition has big budgets that they can run media campaigns [with]. We’re a small not-for-profit organization,” she said.

Money Concerns

While the House bill that would have required districts to share locally raised revenues for capital expenses with charter schools on a per-student basis failed, a state task force is now slated to study construction funding for those independently operated public schools.

One of the objections brought up by school boards and others, Ms. Melton said, was that construction money could end up going to for-profit charter operators with large cash reserves.

The idea that those revenues could be used on a per-student basis, as the charter schools desired, instead of on a construction-needs basis as determined by the school districts, would represent a major policy change for districts, Mr. Proctor noted.

School choice advocates did gain one victory when legislators agreed to increase the cap of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to $229 million, from $175 million, thereby taking 2,500 to 3,000 students off the waiting list for the scholarships next year.

Established in 2001, the program provides tax credits to corporations that donate to nonprofit organizations that fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, or pay for transportation costs to public schools outside their home districts.

In the 2010-11 school year, 34,550 students used $129 million in scholarships through the program, the state education department reported.

But a bill that would have raised the cap to $250 million failed. The cap was due to increase to $218 million, from $175 million, without any action from legislators this year.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as School Choice Issues See Momentum Flag in Florida Legislature

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