The K-12 education Parent Empowerment in Education bill, also known as the “Parent Trigger” bill, is slated to go before the Florida Senate on Thursday. The bill, which opponents have said is merely a push to privatize public schools, has already passed the House of Representatives.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that promotes “free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, and the federal government,” wrote a model Parent Trigger bill, which includes language promoting parent empowerment, turnaround models or options for failing public schools.
Florida’s version of the “Parent Trigger bill,” filed by Sen. Lisbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers, is similar, and would introduce statewide statutes to regulate parent empowerment and turnaround options in Florida.
Representatives of Parent Revolution, the California group backing Benacquisto’s bill, have denied that ALEC had any hand in writing it.
Parent Revolution’s Linda Serrato told The Florida Independent last week that the measure isn’t being led by charter schools or business-backed groups, and actually has the support of many in the public school system. According to Serrato, ALEC “has not been working with [Parent Revolution] at all in Florida.”
But among ALEC’s nine task forces is one called the Education Task force, which promotes its mission in the “nation’s educational system.” One of the members of that task force, The Heartland Institute, has shown support for parent trigger bills in the past.
Marc Oestreich, legislative specialist at The Heartland Institute, wrote in a February policy document that a parent trigger bill in Indiana would “empower parents, increase the level of competition among schools, and save taxpayers money.”
According to its mission statement, The Heartland Institute aims to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” ALEC, which bills itself as “non-partisan,” also advances free-market principles, and has a reach that stretches across the country.
In November, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (one of 14 organizations funding Parent Revolution) gave ALEC a $376,000-plus donation to “educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches” on how to “to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement.”
Organizations led by Michelle Rhee and Jeb Bush, which support the school choice movement, have also pledged their support of the trigger bill.
Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and Foundation for Florida’s Future, Rhee’s Students First, the Florida chapter of the Koch-affiliated tea party group Americans for Prosperity, ALEC and several hundred think tanks, charter school companies and businesses all supported the 2012 National School Choice Week, an event that advocates and promotes charter schools, private schools, virtual schools, homeschooling, school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.
In February, business and political leaders participated in the Florida Coalition of Public School Options’ second annual “School Choice Day” in Tallahassee, in a show of support for charter schools.
School Choice Day participants included Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida and Cheri Shannon, president and CEO of the Florida Charter School Alliance, a group that also endorsed National School Choice Week.
The Florida Charter School Alliance board of directors includes Jim Horne, former Florida education commissioner and president of the Horne Group; John Kirtley, the Florida corporate tax credit scholarship program founder; and Bush’s education foundation’s executive director, Patricia Levesque.
For all of its support, some lawmakers aren’t convinced of the parent trigger bill’s merits. During a recent Florida House debate concerning the bill, Rep. Dwight Bullard, R-Miami, noted that charter schools fail at a higher rate than public schools. House Republicans did not challenge Bullard’s statement.
According to Valerie Strauss, author of an education blog at the Washington Post, “some charter schools are excellent and work wonders with kids. Some do an average job, and some are awful. There is no evidence that charter schools are the silver bullet that will ‘save’ public education.”
Diane Ravitch — U.S. assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, education historian and policy analyst — said at a Florida education summit in 2011 that it is not the appropriate time to invest taxpayer money in plans that have failed elsewhere.
Though Ravitch agrees that innovation is needed, she said that privatization does not guarantee improvement: “We need a vibrant public sector, because public schools educate 90 percent of our children.”
Speaking at a press conference in Tallahassee on Monday, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said that the bill is too extreme. “I support school choice,” said Dockery, a member of the Budget Subcommittee on Education Pre-K – 12 Appropriations. ”I support charter schools and vouchers, but this bill goes too far.”
Dockery added that, had she not been sick, her vote in the Budget Subcommittee would have killed the bill.
Calling it a ”direct attack on public education,” Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, said at Monday’s press conference that “the centerpiece of this legislation has nothing to do with empowering parents.”