Bill Seen as Possible Trigger for Converting Fla. Public Schools to Charter Schools

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February 26, 2012; Source: Star-Banner

In Florida, State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Ft. Myers) is promoting legislation that would expand charter school powers and give them more money. Since many charter schools are developed and managed by nonprofits, NPQ believes the bills in question necessitate a pro or con stand by nonprofits.

One of Benacquisto’s bills, the Parent Empowerment Act, would, according to the Ocala Star-Banner, “allow a majority of parents to shut down a traditional public school and reopen it as a charter.” Not surprisingly, the bill has sparked the opposition of teachers unions and school districts, with the implication that it will pit parents against teachers and administrators. Ostensibly, the parent-initiated conversions would only apply to very low-performing schools. The pending legislation sounds a lot like California’s “parent trigger” law, which we have covered here and here.

What occurred in California was a quick effort by charter school advocates targeting low-performing schools and conducting intensive parent organizing in favor of charter conversion. A group called Parent Revolution (formally, the Los Angeles Parents Union) quickly targeted a school in Compton and made contact with parents and school administrators to trigger the conversion process. The organization came to the table, according to the Foundation Center, with a $700,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and support from several other foundations seeking to move the charter school agenda. Grants and contributions to Parent Revolution increased from $651,000 in 2009 to $3.7 million in 2010, “triggered” by the state law.

A Florida teachers’ union spokesperson feared the same would happen in Florida, expressing concern that the Benacquisto bill would unleash charter school companies in a frenzy of public school takeovers. He charged that the charter operators in California are conducting heavy marketing among parents. “This has nothing to do with parent involvement and everything to do with turning over schools to for-profit charter school companies,” he said.

Benacquisto and others have other bills in the hopper promoting alternatives to traditional public schools, including a bill she introduced to increase the cap on corporate tax credits for private school vouchers by $31 million, making the total cap $250 million (compared to $50 million when the voucher program was started in 2002). Another bill would compel school districts to allocate school construction money to charter schools, diverting the funds from the capital needs of existing schools. That would be on top of a bill passed last year to give charter schools $55 million in state funds for school construction costs while traditional public schools received nothing.

Opponents in the teachers’ union and the districts might have legitimate arguments against Florida’s version of California’s parent trigger law, but to paint the proponents of charters as a coterie of for-profits coached and pushed by Republicans misses the significant involvement of nonprofits in the charter school movement. –Rick Cohen

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