Gloria Romero weighs in on Florida parental empowerment

A parental empowerment bill inspired by the California trigger law has now moved through three different committees in the Florida Legislature, and former California Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero has entered the debate. As those who followed the fight on the Pacific Coast know, this is a deeply personal issue to her.

In a brief commentary today in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Ms. Romero reminds us that this issue has cut across party lines and that the end game is not as much about shutting down schools as it is about giving parents a seat at the table. The Florida effort is moving in both chambers with HB 1191 and SB 1718.

Here is a fuller version of her column:

Florida Should Embrace the Parent Trigger

By Gloria Romero

Our children too often function as debit cards for public education, valued in a struggling school system for the cash they bring through the front door. But parents have no such financial interest at stake, and Florida has the chance to give them more of the educational control they deserve. The Parent Empowerment in Education Act, proposed by Rep. Michael Bileca and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, takes a step toward focusing on the families that schools serve.

I wrote the nation’s first “parent trigger” law, in part because I was frustrated with the lack of urgency in turning around chronically underperforming schools. As a Democratic senator in California, I was tired of the status-quo education interests dictating education policy. Since that bold bipartisan bill was signed into law, some 20 other states have sought to grant this power to parents across the nation. Florida is the latest state to do so.

This is not a Democratic or a Republican fight. It’s a fight for parents, by parents. This is also a civil rights issue that is personal to me. My mother had a sixth grade education; I have a Ph.D. I know what education means for ending poverty, and I know how hard we are making it for millions of children to get the quality education they need and deserve.

If you are poor, African-American, Latino or a member of any other underserved constituency, too often your success in school is tied to your zip code and to government officials who make life-altering decisions for you. Those with financial means move to a different school, but those who stay need a way to make the schools work for their children.

The parental empowerment bill, which passed a House committee on Tuesday, lends a helping hand. When a school is not educating its students, parents can step in, and when a majority signs a petition for change, they can direct the school district to implement a specified school improvement option. The district must submit a plan to the State Board of Education for approval. Among the options are: 1) closing the school and reopening it as a charter; 2) reassigning students to another school and monitoring their progress; 3) converting the school to a district-managed turnaround school; and 4) contracting with an outside agency with a successful record of operating schools.

Moreover, the legislation ensures that parents are informed about the performance of the school their child attends. Performance evaluation reports for all instructional personnel will be available to parents. When a teacher is instructing a class outside his or her field of expertise, the school must tell the parents and inform them about available online courses taught by teachers certified in that field. Similarly, when a classroom teacher has two evaluations of “unsatisfactory” in a three-year period, the parents must be told of the availability of a virtual teacher with “effective” or “highly effective” ratings.

Some establishment parent groups (funded by status-quo interests) have attacked this proposed legislation, oddly asserting that parents don’t really want this power. But that flies in the face of parents who are desperately seeking the right options for the children. An Ohio mother actually went to jail for lying about her zip code to enroll her child in a better school. Poor families and families of color have often been dismissed as parents who don’t care about education or don’t have high expectations for their children. But I know from my own family’s experience – and every survey reflects this – that these parents and these students have the same aspirations for college and life achievements as the middle class. What they don’t have is information. What they don’t have is access. What they don’t have is power.

This legislation goes a significant way to providing all three. It ends the excuses.  It recognizes the urgency.  It validates parents as the true architects of their childrens’ futures. Florida should embrace it.

Gloria Romero is the former majority leader of the California State Senate. She is currently the California representative for Democrats for Educational Reform and a board member for the American Center for School Choice.

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