Fears about Florida’s parent trigger bill are overblown

The parent trigger is headed for a showdown in Florida’s Senate on Friday, and it is worth remembering that the bill was greeted in January with bipartisan support on education committees in both chambers. Suffice it to say, warm and fuzzy has now left the Capitol.

Defeating SB 1718 has become the top priority for the Florida Education Association, and its views carry more currency in a year in which redistricting leaves lawmakers scrambling to run in new districts. The Senate is also in a state of meltdown, with an attempted leadership coup having raised the temperature in the chamber and caused senators to scurry for new alliances. Oddly, the clash may also be owed to the fact that lawmakers have written a budget that restores most of the deep funding cuts made to public schools last year, allowing educators to shift their focus. In the state’s largest newspaper today, a teacher union official and a PTA president gave us a sense for the drama. Nine days ago, the state Board of Education raised the bar for school grades, putting pressure on many of them to further improve or end up with lower or possibly failing grades. So a bill that now would allow parents to vote to overhaul or bring new management to low-performing schools feels to them like a conspiracy.

This may help to explain rhetorical excesses like this: “Florida politicians are chopping up our piece of the (American) dream.” And this: the bill is “really the corporate empowerment bill” and “an effort to dismantle public education.” But the apocalyptic tone is simply confounding.

Perhaps the best criticism of the parent trigger as practiced in California is that it has so seldom been used. The notion that it will lead to the wholesale conversion of public schools in Florida is without historical foundation and lacks common sense. The path toward a vote and takeover of a school takes enormous effort – and it should – so that most school-based parent organizations will not be able to pull it off without the presence of a true educational quagmire.

The writers – Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, Hillsborough union director, and Melissa Erickson, Hillsborough County Council PTA president – are both parents with undoubtedly sincere concerns about whether public schools are being harmed by efforts that seem heavy-handed to them. But their hyperbole does not advance the debate, and, no matter how they slice it, they are arguing that parents are not to be trusted with true power at the schools their children attend.

That’s a political position that seems particularly unbecoming of the PTA.

Editor’s note: Tons of folks are weighing in on Florida’s parent trigger proposal, but here are a couple of other, especially thoughtful pieces: First, this one in Time by former Clinton administration staffer and Eduwonk blogger Andy Rotherham; and this one by Adam Emerson, who just recently left redefinED to become the school choice czar at the Fordham Institute.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.