News Column

'Parent Trigger' Laws Get Traction, Despite Ones Already on Books

March 27, 2013

Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week, Bethesda, Md.

The push for the "parent trigger" option for turning around struggling schools continues, with new laws under consideration in about a dozen states' legislative sessions, even as such laws already on the books remain unused in all but one of the seven states that have them.

Many education advocates opposed to what they view as efforts to privatize and corporatize public schools are watching with trepidation as lawmakers in Florida, Oklahoma, and elsewhere review parent-trigger bills. Opponents argue that the mechanism ultimately hurts schools and ruptures communities.

In some cases, however, detractors have succeeded in stopping parent-trigger bills dead in their tracks. A measure that had appeared headed for approval in the Georgia state legislature faltered late last week when GOP lawmakers raised concerns that it could pit teachers--who would be able to petition a school board for a takeover by a charter operator or initiate another turnaround intervention--against their own principals. The legislation had the backing of top state lawmakers, but was opposed by a variety of public education groups, including the state teachers' union.

Meanwhile, at least three other states--California, Indiana, and Texas--were also considering revisions to their existing parent-trigger laws.

Those in favor of the laws reject the critics' assertions but also caution supporters not to expect a flood of trigger petitions in the near future.

Many parents may have to get used to the idea that, through laws that let them initiate a charter school conversion or other turnaround process, they can exercise as much power as middle- and upper-middle-class parents typically do, said Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution. The Los Angeles-based group was instrumental in successful parent-trigger petition drives in California.

"At the end of the day, this is going to be up to local community groups and local parents to determine how the law is implemented in individual states," said Mr. Austin, who noted that by the start of the 2013-14 school year, California schools could be undergoing changes of various kinds because of the parent trigger.

(Parent Revolution receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also helps support Education Week's coverage of parent empowerment.)

Bills on the Move

Parent-trigger laws allow a majority of parents to officially request an overhaul at their school, which often leads to conversions to charters, although not always.

California was the first state to pass a parent-trigger law; roughly 20 states have at least considered enacting one, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But outside of California, no school has been the subject of a parent-trigger petition. (In California, a bill is under consideration to expand the number of schools eligible for the parent trigger.)

The parent-trigger bill in Oklahoma, as of late last week , had advanced the furthest, having passed the Oklahoma Senate. Florida lawmakers are considering versions of the bill in both the House and the Senate. (A Colorado parent-trigger bill was defeated this year, as was the Georgia legislation.)

Trigger laws now on the books in various states generally ensure that the mechanism can't be used just on a whim. Except for Connecticut, every state with a trigger option requires that a school must first be designated as low-performing by the state in some way for two or three consecutive years before the trigger can be used. For example, Louisiana's 2012 parent-trigger bill requires a school to get a D or F grade for three consecutive years to be eligible.

Although those definitions can apply retroactively to schools for years before the bills pass, there aren't many schools that fit such definitions, said Josh Cunningham, an education research analyst at the Denver-based NCSL. Even then, pulling a parent trigger isn't easy, he said.

"You really have to have a lot of organization and a lot of resources," he said.

Last year, Florida was on the verge of approving a parent-trigger law, but a tie vote in the state

Senate killed it. That hasn't deterred its supporters, who think 2013 will present a friendlier political climate for the idea.

Florida Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Republican who introduced the Senate version of a parent-trigger bill this year, said that her proposal includes all the amendments that were eventually added to the 2012 Senate version of the bill. (The same parent-trigger proposals are in a House bill this year.)

For example, she said, this year's proposal requires that those gathering petition signatures can't be paid for it, and that parents whose only children in the relevant school are seniors set to graduate after the current academic year can't sign the petition.

Last year, the bill died in the Florida Senate mainly because of political squabbling--not concerns about the bill's merits, Ms. Stargel said. In addition, five of the eight Republicans who voted against the bill are now out of office.

But she also said part of the public battle is to assure people that the law isn't simply about opening the door to more charter schools.

"There are many other choices that parents can make," Ms. Stargel said.

But Kathleen Oropeza, the co-founder of Fund Education Now, said the parent-trigger bill represents a continuum of policy imposed by stubborn Florida lawmakers, that includes newly defined, lower cutoff scores on tests, and what she said were predatory private charter school operators waiting for business opportunities.

Since the 2012 parent-trigger bill failed, for example, the Florida NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens in Florida joined the state PTA in opposition to the idea, she noted.

Ms. Oropeza also cited the example of a 2012 legislative race in which Democrat Rep. Karen Castor Dentel used the support of the parent trigger by her Republican opponent, former Rep. Scott Plakon, against him in television ads, although Ms. Stargel said that argument was exaggerated and off-base. Ms. Dentel won the race.

"Legislators are standing alone in their desire to have this, and they're not listening to the people who voted them into office," Ms. Oropeza said.

Growth Potential

Some opponents of the concept see its backers as poised to sweep into other states and effectively set the agenda for supposedly grassroots efforts.

Pamela Grundy, the co-founder of Parents Across America, a Chicago-based group opposed to parent-trigger laws, said such bills continue to be pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative Washington think tank, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based organization led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, that advocates policies such as A-F school grades and charter schools.

Part of the strategy, she contended, is to support "a tremendous scattershot of legislation," especially in GOP-dominated states, to spread groups like hers thin. (Republicans control the Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma legislatures, but Democratic legislators are in charge in Connecticut and California.)

Up until late last week, Georgia had appeared on the verge of being the eighth state to pass parent-trigger legislation. The measure had already passed the state's House of Representatives and seemed poised to glide through the state Senate.

But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Edward R. Lindsay, the House majority whip, yanked the legislation before a Senate committee could consider it, after members of his own party expressed major concerns, saying the measure could pit teachers and administrators against each other. The bill would have allowed a majority of either parents or teachers at a school to sign a petition requiring a conversion to a charter school or other turnaround model.

And, like parent-trigger laws elsewhere, the bill was opposed by a myriad of public education groups.

"I think the bill needed more evaluation and more understanding of its impact before becoming law," said Tracey-Ann Nelson, the government-relations director for the Georgia Association of Educators.

Parental Outlook

Mr. Austin of Parent Revolution said that while his group would support resources and guidance to community groups in states seeking to use the parent trigger, the organization wouldn't simply drop into states to take the wheel for such efforts.

Mr. Austin also rejects the idea that parental support for trigger legislation somehow illustrates where parents stand on other heated K-12 policy issues.

"They don't really care about high-minded philosophical debates about teachers' unions versus education reformers, or charter schools versus district schools, or Democrats versus Republicans," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.



Source: (c)2013 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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