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GOP Clears First Step in Push for School Fixes, Accountability

March 6, 2013 - 6:00pm

Another year, another highly-charged debate over educational accountability. The same players are arranging themselves around the same board. The number on the bill has changed, but not much else, with Republicans and conservative groups pushing for reforms versus Democrats and liberal groups opting for status quo.

The Parent Empowerment in Education bill passed the Florida House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee Thursday, with an 8-5 vote, after a lengthy discussion, foreshadowing a heated upcoming battle for the bill and its Senate counterpart.

At the heart of HB 867, by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, is parents ability to petition the school board to request school turnaround options if a school earns an F grade.Options for improving the school include:

  • converting the school to a district-managed turnaround school;
  • reassigning students to another school and monitoring the progress of each reassigned student;
  • converting the school to one or more charter schools, each with a governing board with a demonstrated record of effectiveness;
  • contracting with an outside entity that has a demonstrated record of effectiveness to operate the school; or
  • implementing a hybrid of options or other proven options.

Supporters of the bill contend parents are the best advocates for their children and the legislation gives them more power to affect positive change in their childs school. On the flip side, much of the debate in opposition to the bill Thursday was centered on the charter school option, including concerns about the private funding mechanism for charter schools and their performance -- even though only 5 percent of charter schools in the state are failing.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, the Democratic ranking member of the committee, voiced concerns that no pathway exists for schools that become charters to be converted back.Echoing that, Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, worried it opens the floodgates for private industry to engage in a process that could privatize our schools. The committee's chairman, Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, clarified that charter schools are already a part of the public-school system.

Coincidentally, concerns about the performance of charter schools were being aired the same afternoon the Florida Department of Education released a report revealing Florida charter-school students continue to outperform their public-school counterparts in math, science and reading in state tests. Florida currently has 518 charter schools operating in 43 school districts with an enrollment of 183,000 students -- more than 7 percent of the states public school attendance.

Former state Sen. Al Lawson, who served in the Legislature for 28 years, tried to put his fellow Democrats' objections to rest, saying, [The bill] doesnt really activate anything other than to empower people to educate our kids.

This years education-reform fight is reminiscent of those of the past three years. In 2010, SB 6 a bill that measured teacher performance as a part of their pay led to a contentious fight and saw an outcry from teacher unions, who benefit from keeping teachers in the system, good or bad.Floor debate on the "merit-pay" bill lasted long into the night, until it was finally passed at 2:30 a.m. But, it was all for naught, as former Gov. Charlie Crist subsequently vetoed it. Gov. Rick Scotts first year in office gave rise to SB 736, who some deemed the son of SB 6, which became the first bill Scott signed into law in 2011.Following the same pattern as SB 6, this years Parent Empowerment bill could be a child of 2012s so-called Parent Trigger bill, SB 1718, which failed to clear both chambers.

Notwithstanding the fact that Thursday's vote was along party lines -- with Republicans voting in favor -- Trujillo said, [This] is not a Republican or Democratic issue; its an American issue. We have to start being proactive. For us to find solutions. For us to move the state forward.

Anne Smith writes special for Sunshine State News.

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