A Sunshine State trigger needs more sunshine
Florida is the next state poised to establish a “parent trigger,” should its Republican-controlled Senate pass the measure when it reaches the floor during the final days of a contentious legislative session. Designed largely after California’s model, the bill adopts all the strengths of the trigger while addressing none of its shortcomings. While the Golden State is the inspiration for ambitious lawmakers with itchy trigger fingers, there is no indication they have learned anything from the awkward and confusing rollout in California.
Instead, Florida legislators are using taut political muscle to join California, Mississippi and Texas in the attempt to empower parents to go so far as to convert a failing school into a charter—and they’re trying to maneuver the legislation through committee stops while leaving little time for debate. But if lawmakers try to take this out of the sunshine, they’re only going to sow the same confusion that has frustrated Californians.
If lawmakers try to take this out of the sunshine, they’re only going to sow the same confusion that has frustrated Californians.
Only the second attempted trigger in California ended in failure two weeks ago. Organizers at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto had, at one point, convinced a supermajority of parents to sign a petition to trigger reforms before nearly 100 of them backed out. The Parent Revolution, which organized the Desert Trails campaign, says it has evidence that operatives for the teachers union fraudulently doctored campaign materials to thwart parents from pulling the trigger and misled others into revoking their signature. Doubtless, the union flexed its muscle to preserve its market share, but it probably didn’t have to break a sweat.
The campaign circulated two petitions—one to preserve Desert Trails as a traditional school but turn over decisions of instruction, hiring and firing to the parents, and a second to use the threat of a charter conversion as a backup. It’s little wonder that some parents would eventually say they didn’t know what they were signing. That has led to a need, argued the Los Angeles Times recently, for the state to intervene and throw some sunshine on the process:
Once parents sign petitions, their signatures shouldn't be subject to changes of mind. But that's true only if there has been a sensible and transparent process to provide them with complete information. The state board should refine the rules for trigger petitions. All parents should be officially notified about trigger campaigns affecting their school; that's not the way it currently works. And before they sign anything, parents should have an opportunity to attend open forums where they can hear from both sides, ask questions, challenge assumptions and debate details. Parent-driven school reform shouldn't be subject to misinformation or lack of information, or depend on which argument was heard most recently.
Florida could make a good parent trigger policy better by bringing such a level of transparency to its own measure—both before and after adoption. The legislation directs the Florida Board of Education to “adopt rules regarding the petition process,” but that’s vague and nebulous direction given the problems and setbacks we’ve seen in California. The trigger does, as its proponents argue, help to bring parents to the bargaining table, but the bargaining table has never been transparent in the first place, and families need clarity before making a decision that, for them, is a game-changer. All they have now is information warfare. Unfortunately, by limiting debate on such a polarizing bill—Senate leaders allowed more discussion after the vote—the Florida Legislature is providing a poor example to follow later.
Category: Charters & Choice
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About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
May 16, 2013
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