South Carolina Considers Version of Parent Trigger

Published February 19, 2014

A Parent Empowerment Act in South Carolina would give parents the ability to petition the state to overhaul their school, but calls for clarity may push it to the back burner.

Bill sponsor State Rep. Bill Herbkersman (R-Beaufort and Jasper Counties) attended a poor-performing high school.

“It affects your whole future and the future of your family,” he said. “Everybody deserves a good education, and the traditional education community is holding back school choices. It’s reprehensible. The short term is about the money and the long term is about quality of life.”

Events in Jasper County prompted the bill. The school board there keeps rating its superintendent, Vashti Washington, satisfactory despite parent rallies to remove her and the schools repeatedly being ranked failing by federal standards.

“This is ultimately what is going to turn around education in South Carolina: putting parents in charge and deciding what’s best for them and their family,” said Ellen Weaver, president of The Palmetto Policy Forum. “Especially in rural counties like Jasper County, where people don’t have a lot of choice.”

The bill would let the state replace a failing school’s leaders and poor-performing staff if 51 percent of parents whose kids attend that school petition for the change. California put the first Parent Trigger law on the books in 2010, and now seven states have similar ones.

“Ultimately, the fate of every child’s education should be in the hands of the parent,” said South Carolina Department of Education spokesman Dino Teppara. “Among the tools necessary to accomplish that is the Parent Trigger. Where it’s been adopted, it has changed the course of learning, and we hope to see it grow.”

Concern Over Language
Denise Davidson is a parent organizer in Jasper County, working to educate citizens and parents on how badly the districts’ schools perform.

Although Davidson says she believes intervention is necessary, she does not support the current bill, because it may allow local districts to retain control of failing schools despite parent petitions.

“Our school board is the predominant problem here because they keep rewarding the current superintendent. It’s been going on for years,” Davidson said.

The 51 percent parent signature requirement is also problematic, she said.

“The school district is one of the largest employers” in Jasper County, Davidson said. “You are asking [some] people to sign themselves out of a job.”

Reinventing the Wheel?
A similar law already on the books lets the state step into schools in case of emergency, notes Heartland Institute Policy Advisor Ben Boychuk.

“In South Carolina’s case,… a new parent-oriented law might serve more as a backstop or redundancy in the best sense of the word,” he said. “If state officials don’t step in, maybe parents can.”

Letters and pleas to the governor to declare a state of emergency in Jasper County have gone unanswered, Davidson said. So the current law may not adequately represent parents, Herbkersman notes.

“Right now the statute has defined measures that preclude the parents from direct involvement,” he said.

‘Groundswell’ of Interest
Herbkersman said he’s seen “a groundswell” of interest in his proposal, primarily from parents desperate to get their kids into a better education situation.

“There are a lot of parents who are so involved, but there are also parents who could [not] care less,” he said. “The parents who could [not] care less are electing these sorry school board members.”

The best features of a Parent Trigger law are its flexibility and adaptability, Boychuk said.

“But it’s important to remember that it’s only one policy tool. It might or might not work for everyone, depending upon the local situation,” he said.

“Parents will often use the law as a method of last resort,” he explained. “In California, remember, the law has only been used successfully a half-dozen times. Each case was different. The most interesting cases are those where parents had all of the signatures they needed on a petition, but instead of ‘pulling the trigger,’ they were able to collaborate with local school and district officials to get the reforms they wanted. That’s something for policymakers and activists to bear in mind as similar laws roll out in other states.”

Image by Berkeley Unified School District.