‘Parent Trigger’ Bill Takes Aim at Underperforming Public Schools

Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood)  confers with Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)
Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) confers with Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)

On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee debated strengthening a law that makes it easier for parents to make changes at low-performing schools.

A measure, passed in 2011, lets parents petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school—an education reform strategy known as a “parent trigger.”

Senate Bill 14 by Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) would reduce that period to two years, a kind of parental “hair trigger.”

(This session, it’s hard to escape the loaded language of gun debates.)

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

Proponents of the law, which requires half the school’s parents to sign on, say it would help parents to take a lead role in school improvement, while critics call it a coordinated attempt to convert schools to privately run charters that lack oversight.

John Gray spoke against the bill on behalf of the Texas State Teachers Association.

“Our concern on this bill is the profit motive that could be driven by some educational management organizations,” Gray said. “You are calling it a parent empowerment law, but looking at the for-profit motive, once those parents sign the petition they are done.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law in 2010, and similar laws have been adopted in at least seven states. California is the only state where the law has been used to force changes at a school.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, said he spent time in California interviewing parents and stakeholders in schools where the parent trigger had been used.

California found that paid operatives influenced the parent trigger petition process at Desert Trails Elementary School.

“Even where parent trigger created change, campaigns produced lasting divisions in the community,” Anthony said.

Last year, the Texas Education Agency rated 750 of Texas’ 8,000 schools academically unacceptable. Those school ratings rely mostly on standardized test scores that closely track family income, and low-performing schools are more likely to have high rates of poverty, racial segregation and students with limited English.

Gabe Rose is the chief strategy officer of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit group that has encouraged parent trigger laws nationwide, beginning with the California law passed in 2010.

“I agree that test scores in general correlate with student income,” Rose told the Observer. He said the bill would affect schools serving large percentages of economically disadvantaged students. “Under the proposed move in Texas it’ll only be about 300 schools—I think it’s 290 or so—that are eligible for the law,” Rose said.

Parent-trigger petitions wouldn’t necessarily request conversion to a charter school; parents could also ask to close the school or replace the staff.

Still, the groups pushing parent-trigger laws have roots in the charter community. Parent Revolution was founded by leaders from the charter school network Green Dot, and is funded largely by the Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s largest financial backers of charter schools.

Taylor filed a bill similar to SB 14 last session, which the Senate passed but never came up for a vote in the House Public Education Committee. This session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has named parent trigger one of his top education priorities.

John Savage is a writer based in Austin.

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Published at 11:36 am CST