Sen. David Holt, who sponsored such legislation for Oklahoma, said he was partly inspired by Won’t Back Down. But whatever the film’s merits as entertainment, its rosy portrait of parent triggers mask major problems with the idea.
Under his proposal, if a school is given a D or an F on the state’s A-F rating system for two consecutive years, a petition by parents of at least 51 percent of the school’s students could force a takeover by a charter school operator.
This makes an end-run around democratic oversight already in place for schools. Our schools are not responsible only to the parents and students they serve in any given year. The entire community has a stake, including parents of children who are not yet school age, employers whose workers come out of area schools and homeowners whose property values are affected by the quality of local schools. These stakeholders have a say in local school board elections, but a parent trigger would exclude much of this community.
The trigger also creates a danger of manipulation by charter school operators who stand to make a profit from taking over a school.
A prime example is the Adelanto Elementary School in Southern California, where a parent trigger petition descended into controversy and legal battles. Some parents said they were misled by petitioners and didn’t realize what they were signing. Fights broke out between parents, and even between kids at the school.
That’s one of the reasons why Oklahoma parents don’t want this law. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association released a statement saying that while its members “support legislation that empowers parents to be engaged in their child’s education … [they] oppose any measure that would divert public funds from public schools, turn public schools into private corporations or disjoin parents, teachers and/or communities with one another.”
The bill ignores that we already have a successful model in Oklahoma for increasing parent engagement in struggling schools. The Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative has piloted 18 community schools in the Tulsa and Union districts. Community schools offer comprehensive programs for students and their families, develop partnerships throughout the community and bring parents into the classroom. A 2010 study by The Oklahoma Center for Educational Policy found that these schools were closing the achievement gap for low-income students.
Far from empowering parents, parent triggers have proven to be divisive, too easily manipulated and damaging to communities. Instead of this proposal being pushed by out-of-state interest groups, we should expand the community schools model already working in Oklahoma.
Perry is a policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a think tank based in Tulsa.
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