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The Wonderful Thing About Triggers

September 28, 2012

So it comes to this. With today’s ballyhooed release of the blockbuster* motion picture “Won’t Back Down,” every education-reformer-who-never-taught-a-day-in-their-life is advocating the Parent Trigger.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time considering the issue, I urge you to consider the viewpoint of an Oklahoma State Senator and our State Superintendent. On the national level, Diane Ravitch has written pervasively on the topic.

The gist is that parents of a failing school have a right to demand change, and if 51 percent (or 50 percent plus one, which is how democratic voting really works) of parents sign a petition saying that they’ve had enough, those parents can wrest control of the school away from the school district and seek private or charter options.

I have several problems with this. So yes, here’s another list:

  1. We can’t agree on what it means for a school to be failing. Last year it meant one thing. This year it means something entirely different, but still not exactly what the adopted rules for failing say. Oh, and there are two lists for failing – one mandated by the state, and one by the feds. And even better, the federal accountability rules changed in August without the state notifying school districts in advance.
  2. A community’s investment in a school is not borne of a moment in time. Schools are paid for by the whole community, usually through bond elections (requiring a 60 percent supermajority, I might add). How would this look in a district with multiple sites for a grade span? As examples, consider the Putnam City and Union districts. Both have schools with the markers of suburbia, but both also serve student populations coming from deep urban poverty. If a group of parents wants to storm the castle and extract a particular school from the district, shouldn’t all the district’s taxpayers have a say in that?
  3. Following up the previous example, within a large district, attendance boundaries have to  be redrawn every few years to make the most out of existing resources. There are only so many classrooms, and when the population shifts, districts have to make the best decisions they can to make sure that every student is well-served. The school building in one Tulsa neighborhood belongs to all the patrons of Tulsa Public Schools, not just to the students attending it in a given year.
  4. Charter schools can create policies that are less inclusive than public schools.
  5. Private management companies will always worry more about the bottom line than students.
  6. The SDE can’t handle disseminating school funds now, and Oklahoma doesn’t even have that many charter schools complicating the formula. I can’t see the Parent Trigger making that process smoother.
  7. Governor Fallin wants to consolidate school districts. The Parent Trigger is antithetical to this initiative as it extracts school sites from school districts and allows them to manage themselves, essentially creating new, smaller, self-serving districts.
  8. Reformers preach about allowing schools flexibility, but they won’t allow the regular schools to have any. Unless the school is failing. And unless 51 percent of the parents say so.

In spite of all the forthcoming rhetoric, what’s really happening here is that Senator Holt, Superintendent Barresi, Jeb Bush, and countless other reformers still don’t trust professional educators to do the jobs they have dedicated their adult lives to. We know that State Board of Education member Bill Price believes that teachers should quit repeating the myth that student poverty makes their jobs harder.

He apparently has never worked in a school with high poverty, high mobility, and high achievement. They exist. They require that the school staff start from square one every single year. You never get to build on last year’s gains, because last year’s kids are gone, and this year’s kids start the year with the same deficits as last year’s kids. Compounding that is the fact that teachers don’t stay in these schools for 20-30 years most of the time. The lowest-performing schools are also the hardest schools to staff.

Keep in mind that Florida rejected the Parent Trigger law in March. For once, I’d actually be ok with us following their lead.

*Ok, maybe “blockbuster” is an exaggeration. As I write this, WBD is getting shredded on Rotten Tomatoes.
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