By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida has become the latest battleground state in a movement to let parents leap-frog over their elected school boards and decide the fate of schools that fail to make the grade.
The Florida Senate could vote as early as Tuesday on the controversial proposal, which supporters say empowers parents to dictate recovery strategies for failing schools, and critics call a ruse to benefit for-profit companies that run charter schools.
Dubbed the "Parent Empowerment Act" or "Parent Trigger," the proposal mirrors a divisive law that won approval in California in 2010. It is backed by former Republican governor Jeb Bush, a vocal advocate for school choice and charter schools, and has already passed in the Florida House of Representatives.
Backers say the measure is a response to a recalcitrant school system that is slow to change and deaf to the needs of their respective communities.
"When you have parents involved in their child's education, it inures to the success of the child," said Mike Trujillo, a representative of Parent Revolution, which spearheaded the California efforts. "What this is is a vehicle by which parents can be involved in their local school community."
Critics say the measure represents yet another nail being driven into public education and teachers unions in no small part by charter school companies that lack the same accountability standards as traditional public schools.
On Monday, a coalition of opponents including teachers unions, the PTA and other parent support organizations, told reporters the real push behind the legislation was from charter school management companies that want the ability to tap into billions of dollars in taxpayer revenue.
"This legislation has nothing to do with empowering parents or giving children and their parents more options for improving schools," said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston.
"It has everything to do with laying the groundwork for the corporate takeover of public schools."
The provision says parents must be notified once a school earns an "F" grade on an A-through-F grading system based on student performance on standardized tests.
If there is no improvement within a year, parents could dictate what would happen going forward, if 51 percent of them agree. Parents would be limited to certain options laid out in federal law, and the plan would be subject to approval by the Florida Department of Education.
Among the options, parents could force the school district to transfer students to other schools, close the school and re-open it as a charter school with a new governing board or contract with an outside management group to run it.
"We are playing around with the lives of children in our schools," said Senator Evelyn Lynn, a Republican from Ormond Beach. "And it's time to stop."
In hearings over the weekend, Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales, said the underlying impetus behind the charter school movement isn't profit but the perception by parents that school officials have not addressed their needs.
"I've been involved in charter conversion efforts and seen firsthand how districts really don't listen to parents. In many districts, they do a very miserable job of reforming schools."
(Editing By Jane Sutton and Todd Eastham)