Bennett Warns Against Florida’s Parent Trigger Proposal

Considering his reformist credentials, Tony Bennett – Florida’s new Education Commissioner – should be the last person to criticize a measure like the parent trigger law current making its way through the state legislature. However, earlier this week Bennett came out strongly against the proposal, although not because he feels it empowers parents too much. On the contrary, he thinks that the process would introduce too much red tape and would make the state too involved in any efforts by parents to turn around a failing school.

According to the letter Bennett sent to lawmakers, the bill doesn’t provide for any kind of remedy against school board members who obstruct parent efforts to put the trigger law into practice. He said that by putting itself in a position of an arbiter between the feuding parent groups and local school boards, it allows the board members to punt the issue further up the legislative chain.

In response, Carlos Trujillo, the bill’s sponsor, said that the conditions of Florida’s NCLB waiver granted by the federal government last year meant the ultimate decision on school turnaround must lie with the state board of education, not the local school district.

The day after Bennett sent his memo, a House committee approved the measure along party lines with representatives of Bush’s foundation speaking in favor. The bills before the Florida House and Senate (HB 867, SB 862) would let parents tell school boards how to handle failing schools if 51 percent of parents sign a petition. Critics argue the petition-gathering process is rife for fraud and other problems. The issue was at the heart of a dispute last year over a California school, the first in the nation to use the parent trigger.

The bill requires local school boards to inform parents within 30 days if the state board deems the school a target for a turnaround. Parents will also be given notice of when the school board will hold a meeting on the issue and announce the 30-day grace period when parents can start gathering signatures and putting together a list of options.

The options, identical to those already available to school boards implementing turnaround plans, include closing the school, converting it into a charter, hiring a management firm to take over the school, or a mix. But Bennett wrote that the proposal “seems to require an overly burdensome process for parents to navigate when working to improve their child’s school.” Instead, he wrote, local school board officials should be held responsible if they ignore parents’ wishes.