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Senate Democrats concede they can't stop parent trigger this year

Senate Democrats conceded Tuesday they don't have the votes to stop one of the most controversial issues of last year's session, the so-called parent trigger bill that will allow parents of a failing school to open the door for a for-profit charter management company to take over.

Working with a coalition of moderate Republicans, Democrats last year mounted opposition to the bill that passed the House and killed it on a 20-20 vote in the Senate on the last day of session. With the turnover of the Senate in 2012, however, several of the newcomers appear to be sympathetic to the proposal, said Senate Democratic Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauerdale, at a meeting of the caucus on Tuesday.

"They have picked up enough votes so this year may be one of those years where we at least make an awful bill a bit better,'' Smith told his Democratic colleagues.

Among the newcomers is Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who has filed SB 862 to allow a majority of parents in a failing public school in Florida to restructure the school. The parents options include replacing the principal; replacing staff and administration; converting to a charter school; or closing the school and turning it over to a private charter school managment companies.

The measure is backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. California was the first state to approve the law, and other states have adopted similar legislation since then.

Democrats uniformly oppose the measure because they believe it is being pushed by the for-profit charter school industry to take over public schools, removing existing administrators and replacing teachers with non-union employees. 

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, suggested that there are higher priorities for the legislature to focus this session and that public schools have enough on their plates. She noted that with changes relating to teacher tenure, the implementation of core curriculum, and the elimination of the FCAT, "the whole public education system is currently under turmoil,'' she said. "Slow it down. We don’t need this trigger bill right now."

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who is head of the Florida Superintendents Association, suggested the numbers don't look for stopping the bill.

"I don’t think we can win or lose this one on the merits of the argument,'' Monford said. "We win on the merits...We have to look at who has been added to the legisl and where they are and we need a strategic plan."