The crusade to privatize public education continues gaining ground in the Florida Legislature, where the controversial bill to have a traditional neighborhood school transformed into a charter school, among other options, sails at full speed under the premise of empowering parents to turn around a school that’s failing their children.
This bill, with great symbolic importance to both sides of the issue, will be heard Thursday by the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee. The Florida House and the Senate Education Committee have already approved it.
Many legislators — some with strong economic ties to the charter school industry — promise the moon when describing the bill known as the Parent Trigger Act. Nonetheless, they present little evidence of its success. Because the fact is that there is none.
Despite the millions of dollars the powerful school-choice lobby and the charter-school industry have spent in seven states where versions of parent-trigger laws have passed, parents in barely three struggling schools in California have chosen a restart model.
Desert Trails Elementary, in Adelanto, Calif., where 62 percent of the students are Hispanic and 27 percent African American, is the only school that so far has been converted into a charter — after a ferocious two-year legal battle that divided the parents.
It might be worthwhile to study this case before adopting the Parent Empowerment in Education bill. Although the Florida bill gives district boards the decision-making power — with the charter-friendly State Board of Education as the tie breaker — the two scenarios are sufficiently similar to be instructive.
The proposed procedures for a petition with a majority of signatures by parents with eligible children to force a major overhaul of an underperforming school are murky. More important, existing laws already give students the right to transfer from low-performing schools, permit charter conversions for any school, require districts to foster parent engagement and to establish advisory councils that include a formal role for parents in every school.
In California, Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, trained and provided pro bono services to the Desert Trail Parent Union. Following the group’s advice, the parents distributed two petitions. The first one sought to reform the school through class-size reductions, extending school hours, acquiring more technological resources for students and requiring master’s degrees for teachers. The second one, which would supposedly be used only as a way of pressuring Adelanto school district officials to accept the terms of the first petition, proposed transforming the school into a charter.
Parents representing more than 50 percent of the students signed both petitions, but only the second one was submitted to the School Board.
“Many parents felt betrayed and asked to remove their signatures,” Carlos Mendoza, former president of the Adelanto School Board, told me on Tuesday. The Florida bill also permits parents to sign multiple petitions and is therefore susceptible to the same bait-and-switch tactics.
A dispute erupted because it wasn’t clear whether parents could remove their names. The Parent Union filed a lawsuit in a county court and a judge ruled in their favor.
The school board ended up accepting the petition, but it was already too late for a conversion because the school year had started.
“We gave them everything they wanted,” said Mendoza. “But the small group of parents that was empowered took us to court again to force the conversion into a charter.”
In October, only the parents who had signed the petition had the opportunity to choose between two charter operators. Only a fraction of the signees attended to vote. In the end, about 50 parents decided the future of more than 600 students.
As demonstrated with this example, the goal of those who organized the petition process was not to reform but to impose a charter conversion. And what was the result? “This law takes power away from the community and grants it to a small group of parents,” Mendoza explained.
According to Bill Sublette, chairman of the Orange County School Board in Central Florida, once a traditional school is converted to a charter school, the neighborhood children can be evicted from their home school. Charters are open to all students in the district who meet their eligibility preferences and standards. When there are more applicants than student stations, a lottery system prevails.
Some local students will not meet the new strict admission rules. This includes students with learning disabilities and those in ESOL classes, as well as many racial and ethnic minority children. A number of surveys have demonstrated that there is a higher incidence of segregation in charters than in traditional schools. The excluded students will carry to their next school the same unsolved problems that contributed to the failure of the converted school, often related to poverty and a range of health and safety challenges.
The chain reaction from these student migrations subjects yet another school to low ranking and can put it on the conversion chopping block, too. It’s a vicious cycle.
South Florida senators need to speak up, shine the light and defend their communities. Because Florida school choice is no choice at all for the kids who need the most help. It’s a scam.