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Legislative debate brews over ‘parent trigger’ bill

Students leave the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering during state testing week in 2014. The school is on the state's priority list and would be eligible for turnaround initiated by parents if a "parent trigger" bill becomes law through the Tennessee General Assembly.
Students leave the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering during state testing week in 2014. The school is on the state's priority list and would be eligible for turnaround initiated by parents if a "parent trigger" bill becomes law through the Tennessee General Assembly.

Andrea Evans is a parent of three children in Nashville and an active member of the PTA at Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School, a public school that’s been placed on the state’s priority list twice because of low test scores.

Her challenge, she says, is that she’s one of the few active members of her school’s PTA, the organization that usually gives voice to parent concerns about education for their children.

When Evans learned from a community organizer about “parent trigger” — a policy that allows parents to instigate a school turnaround — it sounded like just the type of tool that could empower her neighbors to get more involved in their schools.

For the second year, a parent trigger bill is up for debate in the Tennessee legislature. The bill would allow parents at schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools to replace school administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator.

The bill, which would require 51 percent of parents to sign a petition before action is taken, is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), vocal supporters of school choice options such as charter schools and vouchers.

The Senate Education Committee first saw the bill earlier this month, but delayed a vote after concerns that the percentage of parents required to trigger a school turnaround is too low. That panel is scheduled to see the bill again Wednesday, as is the House Education Instruction and Planning Subcommittee.

Parental empowerment

Parent trigger first surfaced in Tennessee last year when Parent Revolution, a California-based advocacy group that helped pass trigger laws in California and Nevada, set up shop in the state. The bill stalled in House Finance Committee, but Parent Revolution liked their chances in Tennessee and stayed. Advocacy groups StudentsFirstTN and Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) also support the policy.

So far, Parent Revolution has been part of a parent trigger action in six schools across the nation. One became a full-charter school. Another K-8 school hired a charter operator for grades 5-8 and chose to have the school system continue operating grades K-4.

Parent Revolution spokeswoman Adrienne Wallace says parent trigger gives parents more leverage, even when it doesn’t end up with signatures being collected. School officials are more likely to listen to parents, she said, when they know trigger is an option. She cited West Athens Elementary School in Los Angeles, where individual parents repeatedly had gone to the principal with safety concerns, unheeded.

“They said, ‘Look, we want to work with the district. Our goal isn’t to can everyone in the school. We don’t want to do a whole petition campaign, but if that’s what it takes . . .,'” Wallace said. “At that point, the administration sat down with them.”

When parents began organizing, the school addressed their concerns by adding a social worker and school psychologist, without a petition ever circulated.

‘This isn’t California’

Legislators seem warier of the measure this year than last year. Before the bill was delayed in the Senate Education Committee, members and lobbyists debated its merits, giving a preview of conversations to come.

Lee Harrell, lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, spoke against the bill. He said the policy is unnecessary because an elected school board already can implement the options outlined in the bill. He also warned that parents might not take into account reforms already in process, or educators’ job security. For example, one option in the bill would replace the school’s principal and half of its teachers.

“For one sheet of people to say you have to fire half your teachers – that’s very problematic in our opinion,” Harrell said.

Harrell’s point hit home with Sen. Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), who ultimately opposed the bill, despite voting for it last year. “I think that’s presumptuous,” he said. “The teachers might be great teachers.”

Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said he appreciates the bill’s focus on parent involvement, but that sufficient options for failing schools – such as takeover authority by the state’s Achievement School District – have been added in recent years.

“I want the parents to be involved, I just don’t know at this time in Tennessee. This isn’t California, it’s Tennessee,” he said.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Kelsey said the bill is necessary because administrators and board members often don’t respond to the concerns of parents – a charge that Harrell took issue with. Harrell noted that, if 51 percent of a school’s parents demanded a change, school boards would take note, even without a parent trigger law.

Evans says it’s vital that Tennessee parents — especially in communities like hers — be more empowered. If they have more options to intercede in behalf of a struggling school, she believes parents will get more involved, which could transform her community.

Parent voice is what’s missing, she said, from other reforms being tried in Tennessee. “The only way any of it’s going to work is if parents are involved,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This updated story CORRECTS the 4th paragraph in the previous version to show that the bill would allow parents at schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools to replace school administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator; NOT to close the school.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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