TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A controversial bill that would allow parents to take over failing public schools in Florida is generating high emotions at the state Capitol.
Supporters say it gives parents a greater voice over how their children's schools are managed, while opponents call it an effort to let for-profit corporations take over public schools.
The legislation is being called the "parent trigger" bill because it would allow parents to take over failing schools if a majority of them choose that option. An "F" school would get one year to turn itself around and if it fails, then parents could gather petitions to take over control of the school.
With 51 percent of the school's parents, they would have power to transform the school into a nonprofit charter operated by a new board, send the students to other schools, or they could privatize it and hire a for-profit charter school to run the facility.
The Florida PTA is opposing the bill, saying parents already have many options to help shape the way schools are operated. Dawn Steward says she does not like the idea of for-profit companies trying to fix failing schools.
"Corporate America will have to pay attention to their stockholders. Their stockholders aren't going to necessarily be children. My stockholders are children and I'm a volunteer and I represent 330,000 voices. I am here to ask the Legislature to please vote against this very bad policy."
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, says Florida's landscape has been dotted with "For Sale" signs because of the foreclosure crisis. She urged the Legislature not to put for sale signs in front of public schools next.
"Our public schools are not for sale. That's the message we need to sell and it's our taxpayer dollars that built those public schools. We paid for them and for a private company to come along and say 'We're going to take those buildings and they're going to be ours,' we may never get them back."
A Senate committee passed the bill over the weekend after cutting off public testimony from parents opposed to the measure.
That angered Linda Kobert. She calls herself a real mom who paid her own way to Tallahassee to speak against the parent trigger bill but then never got a chance, even though a lobbyist advocating for the bill was allowed to speak.
"When politicians grant highly paid professional lobbyists unlimited time to testify and refuse to let us speak, it makes us furious. We are Florida taxpayers, parents and voters. If we don't have a right to speak during a parent empowerment meeting, who does?"
The idea of allowing parents to use the petition-gathering process to take over a failing school is fraught with potential trouble, according to Sen. Paul Dockery, R-Lakeland.
Dockery says she's been a big supporter of the citizens initiative process over the years, even when her own party was not, but she thinks allowing that process to dictate the future of failing schools is trouble.
"I think that there is a lot of room in this bill for some real shenanigans to take place in terms of who's signing those petitions, how those petitions are received, what's being given in trade for those signatures."
Supporters of the bill contend it's needed in some communities where schools don't respond to parents' concerns and continue to operate poorly.
The bill is scheduled to come up for debate in the Senate this week.