Some questions before pulling the trigger

A juvenile display of rhetoric over a proposed parent
trigger in the Florida Senate last Friday underscored a need to introduce some
clear-headed thinking into a polarizing debate. While senators in the Sunshine State killed
the trigger in their 20-20 split vote
, similar bills remain under
consideration in more than a dozen states. With that in mind, Choice Words has developed some
legislative guidance for more informative inquiry.

I would have done anything to stop the childish dialogue among Florida senators to ask these questions about the trigger.

Really, these are just the questions I’ve had about the
trigger, and I would have done anything to stop the childish dialogue among Florida senators to ask
them. Eight moderate Republicans joined 12 Democrats to vote the trigger down,
and nearly all of them were seized by the threat of “privatization” and
for-profit charter schools. Not a word on whether parents can take on the
burden of running a low-performing school or turning it over to a charter
manager. Not a word on whether it should require more than a simple majority of
parents to make such a drastic change. Legislators missed an opportunity to
bring clarity to a discussion now ruled by passion. For the Senate Democratic
minority leader, Nan Rich, the
trigger did nothing
but lay “the groundwork for the hostile corporate
takeover of public schools across Florida.”

For the legislator who wants to give serious consideration
to a controversial idea that has yet to be tried successfully, I offer these
questions to a bill sponsor:

  • Why not enhance
    school choice?
    (If we’re really concerned with empowering parents,
    particularly those who are low-income, then shouldn’t we empower more with the
    ability to “vote with their feet?” On the Dropout Nation blog, RiShawn Biddle
    makes a good case that parents whose roots are grounded deeply in a
    neighborhood school need the power to turn it around, not walk away from it.
    But many others would avail themselves of more public and publicly funded
    private options given the chance.)
  • If a
    trigger is preferred, why not require a supermajority of parents to pull it?

    (A 51 percent vote has the potential to breed factionalism among parents,
    pitting those who favor a charter takeover against those who just want more
    authority over, say, personnel issues. A two-thirds vote is required of many state
    constitutional referenda, and it would ensure a solid core of support for what
    happens after the trigger is pulled.)
  • What
    support do parents receive once they’ve pulled the trigger?
    (Parent Revolution, the California-based
    parent “union” has the organizing power and bandwidth to help parents navigate
    through the thicket of school governance, should parents decide to take on
    hiring and firing decisions themselves. But that won’t be the case in every
    state.)
Can we
establish greater transparency in the process before the trigger is pulled?
  • Can we
    establish greater transparency in the process before the trigger is pulled?

    (The Los Angeles Times smartly
    called for an open forum
    in California
    where both sides can make their case and challenge arguments before parents
    sign anything. That kind of transparency would inherently limit the
    effectiveness of teachers unions organizing to get petitioning parents to
    reverse their support, as was alleged in Adelanto,
    California.)
  • Can we
    create an ombudsman’s office to investigate complaints of intimidation,
    coercion or malfeasance? (
    Even with an open forum, there is still a risk
    that either side would act irresponsibly or illegally outside the public eye.
    That behavior might be curbed if parents had an independent office they could
    turn to. Given that California
    parents have only tried pulling the trigger twice, staffing such an office
    wouldn’t cost a state much during an economic recovery.)
  • Barring
    successful legislation establishing a trigger, why not create three-party
    contracts, with parents being the third party?
    (If the trigger is meant to
    bring parents to the bargaining table, why not literally bring them to the
    bargaining table, and open that
    process to the public.)

Are there more? Of course, Some opponents in Florida asked for a
trigger that would prohibit for-profit charter operators from benefitting.
Others asked to strengthen public school parent advisory councils. The PTA
wanted to know why legislators were pushing a bill that its members rejected.
But these were political statements dressed as legislative inquiries and did
nothing to address the fundamental idea for the trigger in the first place –
giving parents the democratic power to turn around a struggling school. The
legislative remedies so far have been imperfect. Without a meaningful dialogue,
they will remain so.

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