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.

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