News Column

Parent Trigger Law Proposed in Okla.

Oct. 8, 2012

Kim Archer

A parent trigger law -- as portrayed in the movie "Won't Back Down" -- may be on the horizon for Oklahoma.

State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, has announced he will introduce legislation in 2013 that will allow parents to overhaul chronically low-performing schools.

"A parent trigger law in Oklahoma would provide a way to break old patterns, and empower the people that are most invested in success -- parents and students -- to set a new tone for their school," he said.

Under the law, if parents of students in chronically low-performing schools collect more than 50 percent of parents' signatures, they can fire the school staff or turn it into a charter school.

In 2010, California became the first state to pass a parent trigger law.

The parent trigger movement was spurred by two controversial conservative groups, Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is financially supported by billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and Phillip Anschutz.

Walden Media produced "Won't Back Down." The company is a division of The Anschutz Corp, which owns the Oklahoma Publishing Co., publisher of The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City.

The film also is being distributed by 20th Century Fox. The company is owned by Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., which owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.

Holt said "Won't Back Down" inspired him, but he already had the idea for a parent trigger law for Oklahoma before the movie was released.

He said the details haven't yet been worked out and invites others to work with him on crafting them. But he says it must include three components -- requirements that 51 percent of parents agree to intervene in their child's school, the school is chronically low-performing and parents have the power to fire the staff or turn the school into a charter school.

In some states, advocates have argued interventions also should include closing the school or providing students with private-school vouchers. Holt said he would consider all options, particularly the vouchers, but he isn't a fan of closing schools.

"Closing a school isn't my first instinct," he said. "I think everything is retrievable, and why waste a good building?"

Opponents of parent trigger laws characterize them as part of a concerted effort to privatize schools and chip away at public education.

Holt said his only motivation is to give parents a tool to transform chronically low-performing schools.

"I don't know what other people's motivations are, but as the author of this bill, that is my motivation," he said.

And State Superintendent Janet Barresi said those political arguments "don't hold water."

"This is about empowering parents to really have a say-so in how their kids are doing. This is about an answer for low-performing schools," she said. "Look, we cannot wait for those schools another day to continue to improve. We're done waiting. Parents have to be able to come in and not be told to wait a year or two, but to be part of the answer now."

More than 20 states have considered parent trigger legislation with seven of them having enacted some version of the law, including California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas.

Melissa Abdo, parent coordinator of the Tulsa Area Parent Legislative Action Committee, said she is concerned about how such parent takeovers would affect future students and parents.

"In some cases, the parents would turn over every three to four years," she said. "Can a new crop of parents then pull the trigger if they don't like the previous group's decision?"

Schools are run by school boards elected by all patrons and taxpayers of the district, she said.

"I love parental involvement, but I would be concerned if 51 percent of parents could trump the vote of all the taxpayers," Abdo said.

Parents already have many avenues to become involved in their schools and affect change, said Alicia Priest, vice president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

She believes the law could be divisive as she has seen in other states, such as California.

"There are all kinds of issues we can work together on that are not divisive that will actually make a more long-lasting change than this," she said.

Holt said the law won't have wide application.

"But where it does, even if it is only used once, it will change the lives of hundreds if not thousands of young people," he said.

Source: (c)2012 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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