ATLANTA - Education advocates in Georgia and around the country are pushing proposals that would give parents a more direct say in the governance of their children's public schools.
The idea is to allow parents and in some cases, teachers at poorly performing schools to vote on whether to fire principals, convert a traditional public school to a charter school or, in some cases, close a school altogether. Typically, a local school board has final say over changes, but the concept is dubbed the "parent-trigger" law.
It's the latest front in the school choice movement. Yet whether the policy, some form of which is already on the books in seven states, actually improves education outcomes remains unknown. Parents have used the new power just three times, all in California with the most recent action occurring this week. So that leaves legislative debates, certain to play out in at least a half-dozen more states this year, to fall along the same familiar lines as battles over vouchers and charter schools.
Proponents embrace the reformer label, and most say that giving parents more control over a poorly performing school can't help but have a positive effect.
"This is an empowerment act," state Rep. Ed Lindsey told the Georgia House Education Committee this week.
Opponents, including some teachers unions and other public educator groups, often warn that the measures are simply the newest twist on an effort to chip away at the concept of a public education system open to all students.
Lindsey's bill sailed through the Georgia House Education Committee this week, but not before one of his colleagues called it a "gimmick" designed to open more charter schools, which are independent campuses that are publicly funded but privately managed.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a national opinion column that the laws offer "a false choice." She chided lawmakers for focusing the laws on failing schools and argued that "real parent engagement means establishing meaningful ways for parents to be partners in their children's public education from the beginning not just when a school is failing."
The first parent-trigger law went into effect in California in 2010. Since then, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas have followed suit.
The first time it was used came in California's Compton Unified School District, where parents wanted to convert a failing elementary school to a charter. Petition signers met with bitter opposition from teachers and administrators. The district fought the reformers in court to invalidate the petition and succeeded when a judge dismissed the petition because signatures lacked dates. However, reformers claimed victory after the proposed charter operator opened a school nearby - the first ever in Compton.
The second attempt, in a desert town of Adelanto, succeeded, but only on a judge's order. Again, the petition caused huge acrimony, pitting the teachers union against the petitioners. After back and forth in court and the school board initially refusing to accept the petition, the board eventually accepted a charter operator selected by the parents.
Most recently, a harmonious effort is under way in Los Angeles, where school district authorities have embraced the parents and their petition asking for an overhaul of an elementary school. The district has submitted its own reform plan for the school, competing alongside applications from charter management organizations.
In the other six states, there has yet to be a single vote.
At StudentsFirst, a national nonprofit organization that is pushing parent-triggers in several states this year, policy analyst Halli Bayer was quick to say that the dearth of action doesn't reflect on the policy's effectiveness or its importance.
Bayer noted that poorly performing schools often correlate with poorer households with parents who are less directly involved. That makes it difficult to organize at the grassroots level, she said. Besides, she added, any movement takes time on the ground. "They can only take advantage of the law as they are aware of it," she said.
California, Bayer argued, is a success, even if it's just three schools. "The basic tenet is to empower parents not just with options, but with quality options when they're children are attending failing schools," she said. "We've done that."
Bayer also interpreted the actions in Los Angeles as significant progress that extends beyond the usual unions vs. reformers dynamic. The politics of the issue, she said, "are very complex."
Indeed, there isn't a clear partisan breakdown around the country, even as teachers' associations are generally a reliable Democratic constituency.
In Georgia, Lindsey is a Republican, but he has said in multiple public presentations that he's worked with teachers, local school boards and superintendents to fashion an acceptable policy. The latest version of his bill gives school boards the final say over any changes, and he has said consistently that he has no plans to amend the bill to allow appeals to state officials.
The parent-trigger law that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed in Louisiana last year got overwhelmingly bipartisan support. Last year in Florida, a version fell shy of passage by a single vote, even in a legislature dominated by Republicans. In Tennessee, Democratic Rep. John Deberry of Memphis is the sponsoring this year's parent-trigger bill, and in Missouri this year, a Republican is carrying the idea in the House, while a Democrat is carrying it in the Senate.