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Point: Triggering better schools

State Sen. David Holt April 3rd, 2013

This state legislative session, Sen. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, and I proposed legislation to give parents a new tool to affect positive change in their student’s underperforming school. Senate Bill 1001 would create the Parent Empowerment Act, a version of a “parent trigger” that has been enacted in at least seven other states. It passed the Senate, but limited support in the House means it will be laid over until the 2014 session.

The bill only applies to schools that have received from the state Education Department a D or an F for the last two years or a D or an F for two of the last three years, provided the most recent grade was a D or an F.

In those schools — where everything else has failed — a majority of parents, if they wish, would be able to transition the school to a charter school.

Charter schools created this way would serve the same students as the school did before its transition. They essentially would be deregulated neighborhood schools that would provide the flexibility the school needs to improve. In Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, the parents may alternatively opt to terminate the administrators.

This description reflects a uniquely Oklahoma version of a “parent trigger.” We rejected other versions that included the closing of schools or the termination of teachers. We also created a different implementation approach designed to be collaborative between parents and the school district. There’s no reason it has to be adversarial; in Los Angeles, as one example, parent petitions are now being welcomed by a Democratic mayor.

It is my belief that if parents want to organize and improve their school, that is inspiring and we should facilitate it. This isn’t going to be the solution in every situation, and it’s not likely it will be used often. In many cases, just the existence of the tool will force district administrators to listen to the concerns of parents. None of this means that parents will be teaching the classes or sitting in the principal’s office. Parents are merely empowered to establish a new direction.

You may have heard that parents aren’t qualified to make these decisions. I reject that notion, as I believe in local control. You may have heard that school boards already provide an adequate voice. But if a school board should oppose the wishes of most parents, then what use is that voice?

You may have heard that out-of-state interests are behind this bill. Since I wrote every word of the legislation, with Sen. Shumate’s counsel, I know that is not true. You may have heard horror stories about charters, often repeated by the same people who decry state regulation of schools. I have never understood this argument, as a charter school is essentially a deregulated school, the kind of school that teachers often say they want.

The bottom line for me is that SB 1001 can change thousands of young lives in an underperforming school where use of this tool is appropriate. There is virtually no downside, only upside. The children trapped in the status quo can’t afford to wait.

Holt is an OKC Republican representing District 30 in the Oklahoma Senate.

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