State News

March 6, 2013

State House adopts ’parent-trigger’ plan for schools

ATLANTA — The Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill to allow parents and teachers to petition a local school board to make management and operations changes in poorly performing schools.

The 97-74 vote sends House Bill 123 to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass in some form. The final tally included several Republicans abandoning the GOP leadership to vote against the measure, and Democrats flouting their party position to vote in favor.

The so-called “parent trigger” in House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey’s measure is one of the latest policy pursuits of the school choice movement. Some version of the idea has passed in six states, starting in California three years ago.

Lindsey pitched the proposal as a reinforcement of the constitutional “right to petition government for redress of grievance.”

“If you support the First Amendment, you should support this bill,” the Atlanta Republican said.

Opponents framed the measure as another way to chip away at a universal public education system open to all students.

Under the House-approved measure, the allowable requests to school boards would range from firing a principal or reconstituting the faculty to converting a traditional public school into an independent charter school.

Local school boards would have the final word, but they’d be required to have an up-or-down vote after receiving a petition.

There was debate over how the bill defines the majority necessary to submit those petitions. The relevant provisions refer to “a majority of parents or legal guardians of students enrolled in the school” and “a majority of the faculty and instructional staff members” at a school agreeing to submit requests. But subsequent references refer to “the vote of more than 50 percent” of parents or faculty “at a public meeting called with two weeks’ advance notice.”

House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams, D-Atlanta, said she worried that this could be interpreted to allow a majority of those in attendance to trigger a petition, rather than an absolute majority of total enrollment or total faculty size.

Lindsey said his intent was to require an absolute majority, though there were no amendments that attempted to settle the dispute.

Several of Abrams’ Democratic colleagues spoke in favor of Lindsey’s bill.

“This is one tool that gives parents the voice they deserve,” said Rep. Alicia Thomas Morgan, a Cobb County Democrat. “This bill is not a ploy to destroy public education.”

The school choice movement has sometimes prompted atypical political alliances of urban Democrats and urban or suburban Republicans in opposition to professional educator associations and teachers unions traditionally allied with the Democratic Party. Rural Republicans, meanwhile, sometimes abandon their party because of the prominence of public schools in the communities they represent.

No Republicans spoke against the bill Tuesday, though several of the GOP’s 118 members voted against it.

Lindsey noted that he attempted to soften his approach in response to concerns from opponents. He said he is committed to giving local school boards the final say and has rejected calls from supporters to include an appeal to state officials in cases where the board rejects a petition.

The compromise, Lindsey said, is to require a two-thirds vote of a school board to reject any petition that includes support from 60 percent of teachers or parents.

 

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