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Tim Tebow Act Underscores Trend in Partisan Divide over School Choice

March 7, 2013 - 6:00pm

Alabama state Sen. Shadrack McGill is trying to accomplish something that has failed two times prior in the state. Sponsor of the aptly-named Tim Tebow Act, the Republican hopes this year hell score with his bill to allow home-school students to participate in athletics at public schools. But, he faces stiff opposition from Democrats.

McGill's bill -- which narrowly cleared a Senate committee Wednesday, down party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed -- is titled after former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, a home-school student who was able to play football and win a championship at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, because of 1996 Florida legislation similar to the one being considered in McGill's home state.Twenty-nine other states allow it, and supporters say its only fair since parents of home-schoolers still pay taxes.

The Alabama bill will continue to face challenges from the state's school athletics association and Democrats, led by the Senate minority leader who equates parents decision to home-school their children to a belief that they are too good for public schools. Therefore, she says, those kids should not be granted access to schools extracurricular activities.

Florida, like Alabama, has wrestled with divisive partisan politics over a myriad of school reforms -- from granting parents the ability to have a say in improving their childs school to tying teachers pay to their performance.

Currently, Republican Carlos Trujillo, of Miami, is shepherding HB 867 the Parent Empowerment in Education bill through the Florida House in an effort to allow parents to have a say in fixing failing schools. The measure passed an education subcommittee Thursday, on a party-line vote, after Democrats voiced their resistance, saying the bill would start a movement to privatize public schools, by making them charters.Conversion to charter schools, which by law are still part of the public-school system, is only one of severalrecoursesavailable.

School districts and organized teachers unions joined Democrats in opposition, arguing the ability to convert failing schools already exists in law. The crux of their dissent on that point,it seems, is the fact that Trujillos bill no longer requires teachers to consentto the conversion, as in present law. In essence, it takes power away from teachers and unions.Nevertheless, school districts would be the ultimate decision-makers.

Supporters, meanwhile, bristle at the notion of any opposition to parent empowerment, saying parents are the best advocates for their children.

It is shocking any organization that purports to care about education can oppose giving parents the opportunity to recommend what to do to improve their childs chronically underperforming school, said Patricia Levesque, executive director of Jeb Bushs Foundation for Floridas Future, a nationwide public policy group that advocates for education reforms.

Ultimately, the school board retains the decision regarding how changes will be implemented. So what is the fear? Are we that afraid of what parents will recommend, motivated purely out of love for their children? Levesque continued.

Last year, a similar parent bill failed to clear the Legislature. And, in the prior two years, Tallahassee buzzed over Republican efforts to link teacher pay to their performance. While Democrats and organized labor unions were able to sway former Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the measure during the first go-round, proponents eventually succeeded when Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law in March 2011.

Its clear, school-choice observers will be watching to see what results 2013 brings for the students.

As Trujillo put it, education is "not a Republican or Democratic issue; its an American issue."

Anne Smith writes special to Sunshine State News.

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