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Lawmakers around the country are gearing up for showdowns against teachers unions and school administrators who are seeking to squash a new round of education bills that would create and strengthen so-called “parent trigger” laws.
The bills are modeled after California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, which enables parents to force one of five types of major reforms on a low-performing public school if a simple majority of parents sign a petition seeking the change. Those reform options range from firing the principal and half the staff to ceding control of the neighborhood school to a charter operator.
Undeterred by defeats in more than two dozen legislatures in recent years, parent-trigger proponents are lobbying again this year in places they view as friendly to school choice – states in which leadership favors expanding charter schools, funding voucher programs and establishing education savings accounts.
Tennessee and Texas are their primary targets in 2015.
Supporters of the legislation celebrated a small victory this week. On Wednesday, the Tennessee Senate Education Committee advanced a parent-trigger bill on a 5-0 vote.
Texas lawmakers debated a similar bill Thursday during an education committee meeting that lasted several hours. Led by the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the hearing drew passionate testimony from parents, educators and lobbyists, including advocates from California.
Five years after California enacted the nation’s first parent empowerment law — and the first to be dubbed a “parent trigger” — the policy debate rages on over whether the controversial mechanism is an effective way to improve schools. Teachers unions and some school officials are becoming increasingly vocal about their opposition to a type of law they insist does more harm than good. Critics see the law as a tool for corporate-backed privatization of public education under the guise of grassroots parent empowerment.
“If the union wants to jump up and down and scream, let them,” said former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat who authored California’s parent-trigger law and last year formed the California Center for Parent Empowerment, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group that helps parents organize trigger campaigns. “They have a right to, but it doesn’t mean that the law is bad.”
Advocates say giving parents more control is critical. “Folks need to realize that you’ve got to empower the parents as part of the process,” said Tennessee State Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who introduced his parent-trigger bill for the third consecutive year. Giving parents power “doesn’t spell Armageddon for the public school system,” he said.
But opponents of trigger laws say the process is too divisive and disruptive. “A petition drive is a poor way to make drastic changes within a school setting,” said Kristen Fisher, president of the Anaheim Elementary Education Association, a union representing more than 800 teachers in California’s Anaheim City School District. “It doesn’t require or allow for dialogue, and it doesn’t ensure positive change.”
Various forms of parent-trigger laws exist in seven states. Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit formed in 2009 to help pass California’s law, dismisses the versions on the books in Tennessee and Texas as too weak.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar bill as a state senator, supports strengthening his state’s law by shortening how long parents must wait to invoke it. He said the aggressive overhaul tool should be available to the parents of 148,000 students “trapped” at 297 school campuses that failed to meet performance targets for two consecutive years.
The new Texas bill by Taylor, Patrick’s appointee, would reduce from five to two years the time period parents must wait before filing a petition to close or convert an underperforming school. It has the backing of Parent Revolution and Texans for Education Reform.
Bonnie Lesley, a former school administrator and teacher who co-founded the anti-charter school expansion group Texas Kids Can’t Wait, said she is concerned about out-of-state groups fueling the “maniacal focus on assessment and accountability” and “constant disparagement of educators.” She’s hopeful the parent-trigger bill will fail in the Texas General Assembly this year, despite Patrick’s pleas to pass it.
“The lieutenant governor in Texas is very powerful in the Senate, but he doesn’t run the House,” Lesley said. “From what we’re seeing, the House is not as apt to go along with these schemes.”
In Tennessee, a pair of identical bills by DeBerry and State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, would lower the parent signature requirement from a minimum of 60 percent to 51 percent. The legislation requires that parents who sign a petition also pledge to participate actively in their child’s education and support the school once it’s restructured.
The Tennessee Education Association vehemently opposes that legislation but backs a sort of “reverse parent trigger,” a proposal that would allow parents to use a petition process — similar to that in the parent-trigger laws — to stop a charter school from taking over a neighborhood school, or to close a low-performing charter school. Parent Revolution has not yet weighed in on the Tennessee reverse trigger proposal, though it did support similar legislation in Louisiana that in 2013 enabled parents to return schools placed in the state-run achievement district back to local school boards.
In Oklahoma, the battle to pass the state’s first parent-trigger law is less about party lines and more about geography — urban Republicans and Democrats are more likely to support a parent-trigger bill than their rural counterparts, said State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City.
“If you’re doing what is best for the kids, the choice seems obvious: Give them more options,” Holt said. “If you’re doing what’s best for the adults, it would make sense to protect the status quo.”
Holt’s parent-trigger bill died in committee last month. He intends to bring it back next year, and focus this year instead on other pro-choice education bills, including one to establish an education savings account and another to create more charter schools in urban areas.
“Taxpayers have a process to trigger change and it’s called an election,” said Ryan Owens, general counsel for the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration and executive director of United Suburban Schools Association, an advocacy group for more than 50 school districts outside Tulsa and Oklahoma City. He does not want to see the parent-trigger bill resurrected.
“We don’t try to operate without parent input, and I don’t accept the notion that there are unfair bureaucrats who are silencing parents’ voices,” said Owens. “I think that’s a myth that’s perpetuated by outside interest groups that have a specific agenda.”
In New York, a bill by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, would create a parent-trigger pilot program available to the Rochester City School District and cities with populations between 250,000 to 300,000. In Ohio, a similar pilot parent-trigger option made available to nearly two dozen Columbus schools has not been used since enacted by lawmakers in 2011.
No parents have launched a full-fledged parent-trigger campaign outside Southern California, the headquarters for the two advocacy groups devoted to helping parents organize around petition campaigns.
And even in California, only a handful of parent groups have invoked the law. Some parents used it as leverage to negotiate minor changes with existing school leaders. Just one school — Desert Trails Elementary in the tiny high-desert town of Adelanto — has been converted into a nonprofit charter school through a parent-trigger campaign. The Desert Trails effort took nearly two years and a lengthy court battle. It pitted parents against teachers and parents against parents in a bitter fight during which each side accused the other of intimidation and harassment.
The friction between the two sides is sometimes needed to spur meaningful changes, said Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform, a Washington advocacy group that supports charters and parent-trigger laws. “When it comes down to it, we really do have to clean house sometimes with the staff to really bring about change.”
Data on student performance at the overhauled Desert Trails Preparatory is limited, particularly because the California Legislature last year put a two-year hiatus on statewide reading and math rankings for all schools. Desert Trails Preparatory’s new principal, Mandy Plantz, and the charter school’s director, Debra Tarver, are already preparing their submission to their district for a renewal of the three-year charter, using internal testing data to track improvement.
“Even if we didn’t have a trigger, we’d have to work harder than the other district schools because we have to produce,” Tarver said. “If we don’t produce, we get closed down.”
In the most recent trigger attempt, parents in California’s Orange County filed a petition in January to force a charter conversion on Palm Lane Elementary School. At a Feb. 19 meeting, the school board rejected the petition for falling short by 133 signatures as well as for technical violations regarding the petition’s wording. The parents’ organization behind the petition has a chance to correct the errors and re-submit the signatures by late April.
Former State Sen. Romero takes offense at the question of whether the trigger law is inherently divisive. “This is the law: Parents don’t have to live in a failing school,” Romero said. “This could all be very easy if the unions didn’t fight the parents’ right under the law.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Pittsburgh-based journalist who has covered the parent-trigger movement since its California origins in 2010. Follow her on Twitter @NewsNatasha.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.