Education leaders are raising questions about how a proposed plan to give Arizona parents the power to shut down or change a failing school would work — or if it would even make a difference.
Modeled somewhat after California’s “parent empowerment” bill that was approved in 2010, Sen. Lori Klein’s bill — SB 1204 — has passed the Arizona Senate and is on its way to the state House.
The bill would allow parents unhappy with the failing status of their schools to force districts to turn that school over to a charter school organization, fire the principal or shut it down if 51 percent of the parents sign a petition.
But it would also allow students in schools labeled as D or F by the state to participate in an existing voucher-like program that could give them funds to attend a private school.
Klein told Capitol Media Services that the bill would help students who may feel trapped in failing schools.
“This legislation allows for parents to take control of their child’s education and demand reform when a school is persistently failing,” Klein said. “This legislation puts political power into the hands of the parents, the people with the strongest incentive to help their children.”
But it’s counterproductive to what lawmakers and educators are doing now to give schools more local control and improve academics, said Mike Hughes, president of the Arizona School Boards Association and longtime member of the Mesa Unified School District governing board.
“It really takes away from local control and that’s inconsistent with what so many legislators promote. I think we’re putting so much in order — (Common Core) standards, open enrollment,” he said. “It’s an unnecessary mandate … Put resources into schools. Let the school board work with the needs we have. We’re already doing that.”
Similar bills have already passed in Texas and Mississippi and are being considered in more than two dozen other states. California’s “parent empowerment” law — backed by the group Parent Revolution — has been tested twice since it passed in late 2010. So far, no school has been shut down or changed.
In the first filing by parents, according to news reports, a Compton, Calif., school would have been given over to a charter school operator. But after the petitions were filed, some parents claimed they were lied to or harassed to sign and the district board threw out the petitions based on a typo. The situation is now being legally challenged.
In the second filing, also under dispute, parents of an Adelanto, Calif., school turned in two sets of petitions — one to keep the school in the district but turn decision-making over to a parent group, and one to turn it into a charter school. The school board ultimately rejected the petitions, partly because some parents rescinded their signatures. Parents who support changes are still fighting to get something done.
One California newspaper is now calling the law “flawed.”
With what’s happening in California, many here are asking how it could be any different in Arizona.
For one, Arizona has much wider open enrollment laws than California. An Arizona student can attend any public school he or she chooses, even if it’s out of district, as long as there is space available. California lawmakers passed a law just two years ago that lists only 1,000 “open enrollment schools” — schools with poor academic achievement from which students can transfer.
Arizona law allows parents to make a choice to leave a school already, but it also creates situations where dozens of students from out-of-district may be at one school.
“Think about this: What if there is a school where there is a large out-of-district enrollment? Parents would be voting to close down a school in a neighborhood they don’t even live in,” said Arizona School Boards Association spokeswoman Tracey Benson.
Transparency of the process is also a concern, said Rochelle Wells, president of the Arizona PTA and a member of the Tempe Elementary School District governing board. After speaking to her counterparts at California State PTA, she said that — should the Arizona bill pass and take effect — parents would need to know who is gathering the signatures, whether or not those gatherers are being paid, and what choices are available for leaving or changing a poorly performing school.
“We are concerned when children are in a school that is labeled D or F, however, we have to have some other aspects here. One of them is transparency. Parents must be fully informed by the circulator of the petition they’re signing. They need to know what they’re signing and they need to know what their options are, because at the end of the day, the school and parent work together. Just signing a petition does not ensure parent involvement or parent input,” Wells said.
The focus by lawmakers to pull kids out of public schools or shut down public schools worries Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, which lobbies on behalf of teachers.
“I’ve not seen any examples of where it really works at the operational level,” Morrill said of the “parent empowerment” or “parent trigger” law. “I think it feeds on people’s very real concerns about our schools, but there’s no evidence that suggests uprooting a school from its surrounding community and making it a charter school with a distant governing structure running it, there’s no evidence it performs anything … I think this plays on very understandable concerns by parents, but I think it offers a false solution.”
Morrill said a solution to poorly performing schools needs to come by “getting the resources in our schools that they need, frontloading teacher quality with high standards for who comes into the classroom. We can take a lesson from Finland and others with how much they put into their teachers before they even come into the front of classrooms.”
Morrill said lawmakers aren’t really hearing what parents are saying.
“I think legislators ought to be listening to the conversations. Parents aren’t saying, ‘close my school, turn over ownership of local schools.’ They’re saying, ‘I want my school to be successful. I want my children to be successful.’”
A study released late last year by the RAND Corporation showed that students moved from poorly performing schools that were closed don’t necessarily do any better at their new schools. According to the study, many do worse. Test scores only stayed the same — but did not rise — if the student was moved into a school with a much higher academic performance level. The study was authored by John Engberg, a senior economist at the RAND Corp. RAND is a nonprofit group that looks at decision-making and policy changes through research and analysis, according to its website.
Education leaders in Arizona’s school districts also said that, though there are some very good charter schools, they aren’t the answer to everything.
“We’re not trying to fight with charter schools, but the data shows it’s not a foregone conclusion they’re doing any better,” Hughes said.
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