Fingers on the parent trigger

The surprising facts about who’s for and against the controversial parent trigger law.

In January, parents in the Southern California town of Adelanto made history by becoming the first in the country to pull the trigger — the parent trigger, that is. That’s the ominous-sounding term for a state-legislated mechanism that enables parents to take control of struggling schools.

If legislators in Tallahassee get their way during the current session, Florida parents could do the same thing soon. But, unlike the case of Adelanto’s Desert Trail Elementary, which was turned into a charter school, troubled schools singled out in the Sunshine State would be taken over by a for-profit corporation.

The biggest supporters of the Florida legislation are American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that invites state lawmakers to implement policies favorable to business, and the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida’s Future, an education policy nonprofit that has earned the former governor both plaudits and scorn.

The biggest opponents, not surprisingly, are members of the public school establishment — teachers, school board members (who are cut out of the process), and union officials. The idea of handing over public schools to a for-profit entity is anathema to them.

But there’s another group opposing parent trigger that might be less expected: Parents. For a bill that’s supposed to be about empowering them, precious few parents support the bill and a whole lot more oppose it.

Florida is one of a handful of states (along with Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Tennessee) debating whether to enact a parent trigger law this year, joining California and six other states that have already approved such legislation. Miami Republican Carlos Trujillo is backing the bill (officially called Parent Empowerment) in the Florida House.

The bill would give parents a voice in turning around their child’s failing school by allowing them to recommend one of four federally mandated options to their local school board. It would only impact “F” schools, and would require districts to report annually to parents if their child’s teacher is teaching out of field or has received two annual evaluations of unsatisfactory.

But when Trujillo appeared before the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee earlier this month for the bill’s first public hearing, he made a point of saying what the bill was not about.

“I’m not here for ALEC,” he insisted. “I’m not here for Jeb Bush.”

Despite Bush’s somewhat clumsy return to the national stage in recent weeks, his influence on education in Florida is as pronounced today as it was when he was governor over six years ago. And FFF is standing solidly behind parent trigger.

In an email message, Deputy Communications Director Allison Aubuchon calls the bill a proactive mechanism for parents.

“This bill will give moms and dads a voice on important decisions regarding how to turn that school around,” writes Aubuchon. “Parents, the only ones motivated purely out of love for their children, deserve the right to have a seat at that table.”

But the parents of Fund Education Now aren’t buying it.

That’s a group formed six years ago by three Orlando moms who grew concerned about large education cuts in their Orange County school district.

The group’s Kathleen Oropeza says, “It’s disturbing to see a corporate agenda that’s willing to use the love a parent has for a child as a weapon against a neighborhood school.”

At the bill’s second reading last week, 13 people who said they were parents came out to criticize the bill. One woman spoke in support of it. During the bill’s third reading, 20 different parents commented, this time split down the middle.

Fund Education Now maintains in fact that not one “legitimate” Florida parent group embraces the legislation.

CL asked Fighting Florida’s Future to put us in contact with a parent, any parent, who supports parent trigger. They couldn’t do that, instead providing a statement from Pastor Alfred Johnson from the Church of Preparation in Tampa. He has served in inner city communities for 17 years, and says, “We as a community must be willing to explore every successful measure for improving the educational delivery system to our children.”

As with other education reform issues, such as school choice, parent trigger isn’t a solely Republican cause. Some Democrats, particularly black lawmakers seeking improvement in public schools, have spoken up for the measure, such as former state Senator Al Lawson from the Tallahassee area. At this month’s hearing, he said parents with kids in failing schools feel like they don’t have any power, and parent trigger “would force people to do a better job of educating our kids.” Lawson is also now a lobbyist whose clients include Jeb Bush’s foundation.

But critics of parent trigger say that parents do have other options besides the for-profit route.

Hillsborough County School Board Chair April Griffin says that if a parent doesn’t like a neighborhood school, the school system offers choice schools, magnet schools, IB schools. And if a parent isn’t satisfied with those options, they can then enroll their son or daughter in a private or charter school (although, admittedly, private school would not be financially feasible for most low-income families).

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