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Texas Senate Panel Considers Stronger Parent Trigger Law

Austin American Statesman
March 20, 2015

By Kiah Collier 

Four years ago, Texas became one of the first states in the nation to pass a so-called “parent trigger” law — a divisive education policy that gives parents and guardians a way to force oversight changes, or all-out closure, at low-performing public schools.

This legislative session, however, many Republican state lawmakers are saying that 2011 measure does not go far enough.

That is mostly because it covers only campuses that have been rated unacceptable by the state for five consecutive years or longer — a provision that has resulted in no one actually using the law so far, according to the Texas Education Agency. A spokeswoman said there are so few campuses that have reached that point that “possible use of parent trigger is diminished greatly.”

The Senate Education Committee considered a bill this week authored by the panel’s chairman, Sen. Larry Taylor, that would reduce to two consecutive years the period of time that must pass before parents can act.

The Friendswood Republican pushed similar legislation in 2013 that passed the upper chamber with bipartisan support, but died in the House.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said Thursday, laying out his bill for the committee.

Under Senate Bill 14, at least half the parents at a school still would have to sign a petition to trigger an overhaul, although the measure tweaks the timeline and structure of that process. The four available reform options include a “reconstitution” of the campus staff, converting the school into a college preparatory or fine arts academy, contracting with an outside school operator — including a charter — to take over management of the campus, or closing it entirely.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blessed the measure as one of his top priorities at a news conference earlier this month.

But critics who testified Thursday — including many teacher and school groups — argued the concept is not the best way to save a struggling public school, contending that it shuts out parents after the petition process — meaning they aren’t really empowered at all — and can turn public schools into businesses.

“Our concern on this bill is the profit motive that could be driven by some educational management organizations,” John Gray of the Texas State Teachers Association told the education committee Thursday. “You are calling it a parent empowerment law, but looking at the for-profit motive, once those parents sign the petition they are done.”

The Texas Parent Teacher Association testified in favor of the bill, but Associate Executive Director Darren Grissom said the 500,000-member group wants to see several significant changes that stipulate that any charter operation that takes over be established — operating for more than three years — and that for-profit entities be barred from doing so.

Grissom said the group would also like to see the bill include parents later on in the process rather than “leaving them at the door” after initial reforms are implemented — a criticism the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers also lobbed during the Thursday hearing.

But several mothers from California — the first state to pass a parent trigger law in 2010 — told senators that the process had resulted in a far better situation for their children. Six other states have passed some version of the law since then, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Gabe Rose of Parent Revolution, a California group that lobbied for the Golden State’s parent trigger law and has helped parents employ it, told the panel that an outside charter has taken over management of only one of the six schools that have been targeted for reform under the law so far.

“The law has been a powerful catalyst for district and parent partnership,” Rose said. “At five of these six schools, parents have selected or negotiated a reform plan with the district.”

But Rose also said, “it’s too early to have a lot of meaningful academic results yet,” although he contended, “the results so far look very positive and encouraging.”

While mostly Republican lawmakers are championing Taylor’s bill, Democratic state Sen. Royce West of Dallas said Thursday he supports the measure — also the case in 2013, when he was among five Senate Democrats to vote for it.

“I have parents that are kind of fed up,” said West, also requesting tweaks to the bill. “We probably need to have a conversation about the merits of this.”

But West also suggested Thursday he backs the bill only because he knows that legislation supporting an alternative concept known as “community schools” doesn’t have the votes to pass in the now-staunchly conservative upper chamber. The approach calls for bolstering academic and other services for students and families at failing public schools via partnerships with local entities.

It has been used at a few Austin campuses, including Reagan High School — now called Reagan Early College High School — which was once on the brink of closure but has since seen a sharp increase in attendance and graduation rates.

Taylor said Thursday his bill isn’t meant to be “the silver bullet. It’s not going to fix everything.”

But, he said, “for some families, this is what’s going to save their kids.”

His measure was left pending late Thursday, meaning the education committee will vote on it at a later date.