Are parents the solution to failing schools?
That’s the theory behind parent trigger laws, which allow a majority of parents in a failing school to petition and win control of the school and impose their own reform blueprint. Originating in California in 2010, the laws allow parents to take over a systematically failing school if they collect signatures from the majority of families.
But do the trigger laws really fire blanks?
A increasing criticism of parent trigger laws is that, while they involve parents at the start in organizing the petition drives to pull the trigger, the most realistic outcome is the hiring of an outside management firm to run the reconstituted school.
In fact, the possible ascendancy of for-profit education management companies contributed to the defeat of a parent trigger bill in Florida last year because parent groups argued that the law would lead to corporate interests exploiting the schools.
The Georgia General Assembly is now considering the Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act. If Georgia adopts the bill — and the debate around it will be fierce — it would become the eighth state to do so.
In explaining the rationale for his parent trigger bill, sponsor and House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, cited the need to get parents and school boards talking.
“It creates an additional avenue of communication directly from the parents to the school board, which I think is critically important,” said Lindsey
Georgia House Bill 123 allows a majority of the parents or a majority of the teachers to petition for a complete overhaul of a the school by converting to charter school status or another turnaround model. The bill specifies that the parents can remove school personnel, including the principal, or mandate the complete reconstitution of the school.
The bill requires school board approval, but Lindsey erected a high wall for a board to reject a parent trigger petition; a two-thirds majority of the school board must vote to deny a petition coming from 60 percent of parents.
However, the yea/nay power accorded school boards in the bill led Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, former chair of the Senate Education Committee, to ask, “What’s the point?”
“Remember, these are locally created public schools created by the local boards,” said Lindsey. “Given that fact, I do not believe we should cut these local boards out of the process. The purpose of the bill is to create a process for direct communication between a local board and the parents and students it serves. I respectfully disagree with my friend Fran Millar. I believe that elected school boards will listen to parents and teachers on the operation of their local schools.”
In a feature unique to Lindsey’s bill, even parents of high performing schools may apply for their schools to convert to a charter school.
“Any local traditional school may apply to be a conversion charter,” he said. “However, I did add a provision allowing for parents or teachers in a low performing schools to seek an overhaul of the management of the school. Let me also add that this section allowing teachers to petition for a management overhaul came as a result of past comments from teachers on your blog.”
Parent Revolution, the California-based advocacy group that created the parent trigger, sees the parent trigger as both an action plan and a negotiating tool. Recently, the specter of a parent trigger takeover led administrators and teachers in one Los Angeles school to sit down with parents and begin a collaborate effort to improve the school, according to Parent Revolution spokesman David Phelps.
But, if a parent takeover is required to transform the school, Parent Revolution opposes the reins of a school being handed to for-profit management companies. Such a prohibition is currently not part of the Georgia bill. “We take a very strong position that it should only be a not-for-profit that will continue to involve parents,” said Phelps.
Also, Parent Revolution wants an appeal process spelled out in Lindsey’s bill. “Because school boards can be very political, very divided, the law ought to make sure that if a school board rejects the parent petition, that there is some appeal process that can be in place,” said Phelps.
Phelps said it was unusual for a parent trigger law to address schools that are not failing, as does Lindsey’s bill. The case for a change to a charter school is weakened if a school is performing well. The point of parent trigger is to give a voice to parents in schools where children are not succeeding, he said,
“When you can see that there is a consistent history of failure, then you are able to say that this is a school where we would like to help parents organize for a change,” he said. “It narrows the universe with which you are able to work.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog