‘Trigger’ law would give parents clout in schools

/ 6 April 2012 / jennifer

Kim McGuire, Star Tribune, April 6, 2012 –

A proposal in the Legislature says parents should be able to fire principals and close troubled schools. Skeptics see it as an attack.

Parents would have the power to force sweeping changes in Minnesota’s chronically low-performing schools under a proposal that’s before lawmakers in the waning days of the session.

If approved, Minnesota would join a handful of states that have adopted what is commonly known as a “parent trigger” law. Such laws give parents the authority to fire principals, convert low-performing schools to charter schools, or close them and transfer students to better schools.

“I think it’s a great concept, one that gives parents who are feeling a little desperate some hope,” said state Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, the bill’s chief author.

While the Republican-backed legislation has some traction in the House, it appears to have stalled in the Senate, casting doubt on whether it will survive the session. The bill also faces a skeptical Gov. Mark Dayton.

Dayton said last week that he had not dug into the details of the parent trigger bill but feared it would be part of what he termed a GOP assault on public schoolteachers.

“We counted 22 different bills that are part of this Republican onslaught against public schools, teachers, unions, public education, and it’s just having a very destructive effect against teachers all over the state,” the governor said.

“As they’ve told me, they’re demoralized, they feel like they don’t have any respect, they do their best in the classroom and they get criticized for it.”

Still, the proposal has generated discussion about how to revitalize schools that fail to improve year after year.

In May, the Minnesota Department of Education will identify those schools, called “priority schools” under the state’s recently approved waiver from the “No Child Left Behind” law. Schools earning that designation must submit plans promising drastic operational changes.

Other states looking at law

Under Loon’s proposal, schools winning the “priority” designation three years in a row would be eligible for reforms spelled out in the parent trigger legislation. Those reforms center around restructuring staffing at those schools, or closing them.

To make such organizational changes, 51 percent of the parents within that school or its feeder schools first would have to sign a petition.

Questions, however, have been raised about whether school boards would have to adopt the changes as the legislation is written now. There is no penalty for school boards that fail to enact the petitioners’ demands.

Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, a Minnesota-based group focused on public education, said the legislation would not change the status quo as parents already have the power to demand changes from a school board.

“I call this the bill from nowhere to nowhere,” she said.

She added that she was unaware of any parent groups in Minnesota that supported the legislation or had called for it to be introduced in the first place.

Chris Stewart, a former Minneapolis school board member, said he is informally polling local African-American groups about the proposal. He believes it shifts power away from the “bureaucracies” that run schools and into the hands of parents.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Stewart, the founder of Action for Equity, a local group focused on education and family policy.

StudentsFirst, the group founded by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former public school superintendent in Washington, D.C., is backing the legislation in Minnesota and in other states.

So far, parent trigger laws have been adopted in California, Texas and Mississippi. About a dozen states are contemplating the legislation this year.

The only place where parents have resorted to using the law is Compton, Calif., a low-income Los Angeles suburb. Their efforts, however, have been blocked by litigation.

Linda Serrato, a spokeswoman for Parent Revolution, the California group that successfully lobbied for the nation’s first parent trigger law, commended the Minnesota lawmakers pushing for the plan.

“I think what you’ll find is that this will get parents talking about reform in public schools like they never have before,” she said.

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469