Future of Schools

‘Parent trigger’ education bill stalls in Tennessee legislature, but will be back next year, sponsor says

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
A parent speaks last year at a Shelby County Board of Education meeting. Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) said parents often feel powerless to improve their child's school within the traditional educational structure, prompting him to sponsor "parent trigger" legislation designed to empower parents.

While the Tennessee General Assembly has been generally friendly this year to legislation promoting school choice, at least one measure designed to empower parents has fizzled – at least for this year.

The so-called “parent trigger” bill would have allowed parents at Tennessee’s lowest 10 percent of schools to replace administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator if at least 51 percent of parents sign a petition to do so.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, the bill’s sponsor, asked Monday that the Senate Finance Committee hold the measure for consideration next year. The House sponsor, Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), perceived the bill did not have support for passage this year and withdrew the proposal from a House subcommittee before it ever was debated.

“My understanding was we did not have the votes,” DeBerry told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “Rather than have it voted down and give it another blow . . . that was just something I personally was not willing to allow to happen.”

Since California approved its Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, at least six states have passed similar legislation. Lawmakers in another six, including Tennessee, have been considering parent trigger proposals this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Advocates say that parents should have a more active role in how their child’s school is managed. They consider parent trigger laws another tool for holding school and district administrators accountable. Critics, however, point out that mechanisms already exist to intervene in low-performing schools. They are wary that parent trigger laws could become a tool for corporate-backed privatization of public education under the guise of grassroots parent empowerment.

Tennessee’s legislature passed a lukewarm parent trigger law in 2002, but that law has never been evoked. Last year, the California-based advocacy group Parent Revolution targeted Tennessee to pass a stronger version that would require at least 51 percent of parents to sign a petition, instead of the current 60 percent, and requiring the local board of education to adopt the parents’ changes. That proposal stalled last year in the House Finance Committee.

This year’s bill by Kelsey was approved in March by the Senate Education Committee after a lengthy debate that spanned two meetings, but traction in the House did not follow.

Parent Revolution spokeswoman Adrienne Wallace said the organization would continue organizing parents in Memphis and Nashville and lobbying for a stronger parent trigger bill. “We’re definitely invested in supporting Tennessee’s parents,” Wallace said from Los Angeles.

Other groups, such as the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA), are pleased the bill has stalled for another year.

“It’s unneeded,” said Lee Harrell for the TSBA, which represents school boards across the state. “. . . If we had 51 percent parent from any school get involved on any issue, the [local] board of education is going to get involved immediately. The idea that Tennessee parents are being ignored in these large quantities is just not factual.”

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.

DeBerry, however, said parents in his home district in Memphis are being ignored. He pledged to bring the bill back next year.

“Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent many times in the Board of Education seeing parents begging the powers-that-be to make changes in their schools,” he said. “Schools have closed with parents sitting there in tears. We have seen parents camped out in the rain trying to get their child into a handful of good schools.”

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”