Advocates for public schools are sounding alarms about HB 123, the Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act. According to one breathless account I’ve come across, it gives parents “the option to convert to a charter or ‘turnaround model,’ the most popular of which is to remove the entire administration and staff ‘whose performance has continued not to produce student achievement gains.’”
That would be empowering all right, if that were what the bill did. But it’s not the advocates for traditional public schools who should be alarmed. It’s the proponents of “school choice,” of whom I’m not one, who should feel conned by the puny helping of empowerment HB 123, as amended and approved by the House Education Committee, serves up.
The bill provides for organized teacher mutiny. But that feature has been eclipsed by the so-called “parent trigger.” What the bill “empowers” parents to do isn’t “convert to a charter” or “turnaround model.” They’re only empowered to petition their local school board for permission to do that.
And if the petitioners present signatures from at least 50 percent of the parents of the school’s students, then the local board is required only to consider the petition.
Now here’s where things get interesting: The board may reject a petition for a variety of reasons, among them its belief that what the petitioners are asking for “does not promote school governance; or is not in the public interest.”
Human nature being what it is, school boards aren’t likely to be sympathetic to petitions that are, in effect, indictments of their own performance. And vague generalities like “does not promote school governance,” or “is not in the public interest” are tempting face-saving escape hatches for boards overseeing substandard schools.
While the board has to explain in writing its reasons for rejecting a petition and the State Board of Education may mediate disagreements between petitioners and the school board, the bill provides for no appeal from the board’s decision. The best unsuccessful petitioners can do is revise and resubmit their petitions, apparently indefinitely.
But, wait, it gets better. For petitioners seeking to go the turnaround route, the bill provides a menu of six models ranging from the draconian replacement of the entire school staff to just giving parents the option of sending their children to another school. Petitioners who’re asking for the implementation of one or more of the six turnaround models must specify which model or models they favor.
But even if the school board approves the petition, it may ignore the petitioners’ preference and adopt a model different from what the petitioners want. It’s a pretty safe bet that petitioners who demand a total replacement of their school’s staff are much more often than not going to get only something like model number 5:“Prepare and implement an intensive student achievement improvement plan….”
And of course whatever models the petitioners may pry out of the board, the same school board that allowed the school to lapse into the condition that triggered the petition in the first place is going to oversee the turnaround effort.
Far from being an existential threat to public education, this bill looks like little more than a “dog’s lunch,” ritualizing, with an adversarial cast, the informal initiatives open to parents now, with a remedy for unresponsive school boards always available at election time.
So what’s really going on here? Some people think, and I’ve thought myself on occasion, that measures like HB 123 are driven by partisan interests intent on undermining public education. But “parent trigger” advocates come from all across the political spectrum, from Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s education secretary, to the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council.
I think now that what’s happening is what I’ve seen several times in my life. We’re in the grip of a fad, education being especially fertile ground for them. Twenty years or so ago we were captivated by a different fashion and twenty years or so hence in all likelihood we’ll be enchanted by still another one.
But at the end of the day, intelligence and commitment on the part of all parties have always been a better path to the results we want than faddish toys like HB 123.