FT. MYERS, Fla. (news-press.com) -- It's going to be another wild ride for education: New bills in Tallahassee could shake up parents, teachers and students.
Among the bigger issues as the Legislature begins the 2013 session today are teacher pay, and parent triggers to take over schools.
In the Senate, a proposal, commonly known as the "parent trigger bill" or SB 862 would allow parents to petition their school boards to adopt a specific turnaround option for any schools that has a failed record for two consecutive years.
A majority of parents from the school would be needed in order to "trigger" a school district to consider turnaround options.
A similar piece of legislation, introduced last year by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was narrowly defeated.
"I continue to support the Parent Empowerment Bill," said Benacquisto, during an editorial board interview with News-Press reporters and editors. "Anyone who levied the criticism that it would lead to creation of more charter schools might not have had the opportunity to read the bill in its entirety, because it spelled out a three-year, federally mandated process of acknowledging failing schools and attempts by the local community and the district to remediate the school."
The bill isn't an attempt to turn traditional schools to charter schools, Benacquisto said, adding that a charter school could open "down the street from a school the first year it's labeled failing."
Donna Mutzenard, executive director of the Island Coast chapter of the Florida Education Association, said the parent trigger bill would become a major issue for the teachers union.
"There are already things in place that cover (failing schools)," Mutzenard said. "We have No Child Left Behind for schools that don't meet Adequate Yearly Progress. We have language that says a school can be changed or get rid of the whole staff, or you can make it a charter school. Why do we need another layer?"
The Florida Parent Teacher's Association, which opposes the legislation this session, received the National PTA's 2013 Outstanding Advocacy Award in January for opposing the parent trigger bill last year.
"It's divisive with parents," said Mutzenard. "Since having it in California there have been lawsuits all over the place. What about the other 49 percent of parents who like the school and don't want it to change?"
Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he likes the idea of having more parents involved in the school system, but he would prefer to see a higher majority than 51 percent of parents be allowed to petition for turning around a failing school.
"If it's a two-thirds majority, I think that is a great idea," Eagle said. "But I do have concerns. Municipal charters have done a great job, but I have some concerns with for-profit charters. I want to make sure we're not doing corporate welfare here."
At the end of the day, parents should have the opportunity to make a change in their children's school, said Senate President Don Gaetz.
"Now do we want the only alternative to be flight from the school ... and going down the street to a charter school that can be developed tomorrow?" Gaetz said. "What if you have parents who love their children and care deeply about their neighborhood school and just want it to be better ... but they get resistance from the very people who control the process. Before we raise the white flag and give up on those children and give up on that school, I think we need to empower the parents and let the parents change the school."
The House and Senate will also consider changing teacher compensation.
A joint resolution would look to raise the minimum salary for new and experienced full-time teachers to at least the national average salary by 2015. The resolution comes on the heels of Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal to raise teacher pay by $2,500.
"There are some issues there," said Senate President Pro Tempore Garrett Richter, R-Naples. "There is collective bargaining and the union. ... Even if we had a gazillion-dollar surplus, we would be challenged to give every teacher the same thing. Who wants to give a teacher on probation the same thing as a great teacher? I don't think that is the governor's idea either. The governor wanted to state the value of a teacher to Florida."
The national average salary for full-time public teachers in 2010-11 was $56,069, according to National Center for Education Statistics. The average salary paid to a full-time public teacher in Florida for 2010-11 was $45,723, according to the Department of Education.
The state has about a $437 million surplus, but the teacher pay raises would amount to $480 million and the Senate is approaching the budget "as if we have zero extra dollars to spend," Benacquisto said.
"I applaud the governor's approach to rewarding teachers," she said. "It's a profession at times underrated, but so critically important to the short term health of the economy and student lives."
Eagle said he is in favor of paying teachers more money, but only those teachers who have been identified as the best.
More money would be available for teachers if waste were eliminated, he said.
"Bureaucrats within the education system have been giving themselves raises for years," Eagle said. "While teachers have been getting cut."
Other legislation that could affect teachers, including House Bill 1097, would give school principals the power to decide whether teachers and staff can carry a concealed weapon while at work.
"I know there are teachers out there that would probably like to have it," Mutzenard said. "But our overall philosophical position would be not to see it at all."
Eagle said he wasn't sure about the measure, but that it would rather see the idea of "safe zones" at schools eliminated. The zones give criminals the ability to wreak havoc on school campuses.
"Anyone with a concealed weapons permit, a responsible citizen, should be able to carry a concealed weapon on campus," Eagle said. "Arming all teachers though, I don't know. But we shouldn't have these so-called safe-zones."
By Ashley A. Smith, News-press.com