Texas “Parent Trigger” for Charter Conversion of Neighborhood Schools Has Limited Scope

Charter-school operators who want to take over neighborhood schools have hit upon a new strategy of late, seeking to pass state legislation under which a majority of parents at a campus can trigger charter conversion by petition.

The prototype of this so-called “parent trigger” legislation, based on a model promoted by the corporate-dominated American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), was passed a few years ago in California, but it proved easier to pass than to implement. Bait-and-switch petition drives run by charter promoters—in which unsuspecting parents are encouraged to believe the petition calls for reform of their neighborhood school, not charter conversion—have stoked opposition from parents and local school boards, leading to a court challenge in at least one case.

Nonetheless, the “parent trigger” proponents have tried with some success to sell the media on a narrative of nationwide momentum for their legislation. Thus they claim a 2010 Connecticut law as a big win for their cause, even though that legislation actually morphed into a much different form granting parents and educators alike a stronger say in shaping policy to improve their neighborhood schools.

The “parent trigger” advocates also portray a 2011 Texas law as another major step in their campaign to turn neighborhood schools into charter schools.  But the Texas version of a “parent trigger” actually is quite limited in scope.

The 2011 Texas law (enacted as SB 738 by Sen. Florence Shapiro, Republican of Plano), affects only the choice of sanctions for persistently low-performing campuses, and it leaves that choice largely in the hands of the commissioner of education.  The law has not been put to use thus far.  Administrative rules required to implement the law have not been proposed yet by the commissioner.

The opportunity for parents to petition comes into play only for a school that has had an unacceptable performance rating for three more years after being reconstituted—in other words, after at least five years of unacceptable performance (reconstitution typically occurs after the first two years of such unacceptable performance).

The only thing affected by a petition of the majority of parents at such a campus is the commissioner’s discretion to choose among three pre-existing sanction options.

Under a 2006 law, at this sixth-year stage in the sanctions process, the commissioner must decide among three options:

–“repurposing” of the campus (with a new academic program, with a substantially new faculty, and with a right of students to transfer out);

–alternative management; or

–closure.

The commissioner must grant the parents’ request to use one of these options, unless the local school board disagrees and supports a different option. If the local school board disagrees with the parent petitioners, the commissioner decides between the two alternative options proposed.

Note well: Parents under this version of the “parent trigger” do not determine the selection of any particular management entity. The commissioner retains discretion to choose the management entity. (Alternative management must be by an entity that meets educational and financial qualifications set out in statute and that must be approved by the commissioner.)

A much more aggressive version of a “parent trigger” was offered as an amendment to SB 738 in the Texas House but was defeated, thanks to hard work by Texas AFT and a stout stand by our legislative allies. Under that more aggressive version, a particular charter operator designated by parent petition would have been authorized to take over a campus after only two years of unacceptable ratings.

This defeated version of a “parent trigger” would have enabled charter operators in Texas to do what they have done in California—run high-priced campaigns to secure parents’ signatures on a petition “to improve their neighborhood school,” while the fine print in the petition actually called for the takeover of the local school by a specific charter operator.

One final note:  The most extreme version of a “parent trigger,” the ALEC model authorizing parents not only to trigger charter conversion but also to compel issuance of private-school vouchers, was never introduced in the Texas legislature.

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