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Latvala proposes parent trigger compromise, teachers say it's misleading

With a close vote expected Thursday on the proposal to allow parents at chronically low-performing schools to close the school or convert it to a charter school, a key senator is drafting a compromise that would phase in the so-called “parent trigger” on a pilot basis.

The proposal, being drafted by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, would allow parents to demand a turn-around plan if their school is deemed an F-school for the second year in a row. The proposal, which has not yet been filed, could potentially apply only to the 21 current public schools that received an “F” grade this year and 17 private charter schools that are also deemed failing.

“I think we should not ignore these F-schools but, by the same token, I don’t support taking over public schools by the commercial charter school industry,’’ Latvala told the Herald/Times on Wednesday.

But lobbyists for the teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, said that before Latvala launched his compromise, they were confident they had the votes to kill the parent trigger bill in the Senate this year. Latvala has increasingly become a power broker since he stopped a leadership coup in the Senate two weeks ago on behalf of Senate Republican Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. Gardiner is one of the Senate's strongest advocates for the parent trigger concept.

"There is no reason for Gardiner to want a compromise if the majority has their votes,'' said Jeff Wright, lobbyist for FEA.

Under the bill passed by the House and to be voted on in the Senate, parents would be given the power to dictate the fate of a failing school if improvement isn’t recorded within a year. The bill allows parents to activate that power if more than 50 percent of them sign a petition and they seek changes that follow parameters laid out in federal law and subject to Department of Education approval.

Opponents of the parent trigger legislation worry that Florida’s more rigorous school grading formula, expected to take effect later this year, will result in hundreds more failing schools — and more opportunities for charter school companies to win contracts.

Parent groups have also said they believe the bill, being pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Florida’s Future, is aimed more at promoting charter schools and for-profit school management companies than it is about empowering parents.

Latvala said his compromise would include several restrictions on attempts to use the failing schools to organize new charter schools, he said.

It would "outlaw any remuneration for anyone who signs or collects signatures, outlaw for-profit charter schools from being involved in any petition solicitation" and would clearly define who can vote – parents whose children are leaving the school would be prohibited from voting while parents whose children are coming into the school would be allowed to vote, he said.

Wright considers Latvala's amendment a red herring, since for-profit charter schools are already not allowed in the bill but schools often begin as non-profit charter schools but eventually become managed by for-profit management companies. He does not know if they would be allowed by Latvala's plan.

Latvala said he realizes the issue is not supported by the teachers union. But, he added, he has
counted the votes and believes the compromise is necessary, especially if the stricter school grading standards take effect this year.

“To me, getting a scaled back deal is better than the risk of getting the whole thing,’’ he said. “Some would rather fight about it. I’m just buying an insurance policy.”

“I’m the vote counter around here. I haven’t been wrong before and I just judged this was too big a risk to take,'' he said. "The teacher’s union would rather fight it and lose, then take it to court or
whatever, than have it on 21 public schools. And your editorial board is probably going to beat the hell out of me, but the risk was too great.”

Wright said he "respectfully disagrees. This is all about trying to get through the November election without a vote on this. We're not going to agree to a compromise."