Tennessee Considers Parent Trigger Legislation

Published April 11, 2014

For several years, Tennessee parents and bipartisan legislators have worked to pass a Parent Trigger law to let families require reforms within low-performing schools by signing a petition.

This session may see the bill turned into law. Senate Bill 2338 passed the Senate Education Committee last week 8-1, moving it to the Finance Committee with further action likely soon.

Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) is sponsoring the House version and Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) its Senate companion. This is the second session DeBerry has sponsored Parent Trigger legislation.

“It’s one of the few initiatives that empowers parents…[Currently] they’re just shut out from negotiations when schools are failing,” DeBerry said. “What this does is allows the parents to actually demand that a school be turned around.”

This year, the bill would apply to the state’s bottom 10 percent of schools. If 51 percent of parents or 60 percent of teachers at the school to sign a petition, it would “trigger” one of three turnaround options.

The options include conversion to a charter school, and removal of ineffective educators or administrators. Seven states now have Parent Trigger laws after the first passed in California in 2010.

“There are a lot of kids who are, as I would call them, the forgotten few,” said Helen Collins, a member of national organizing group Parent Revolution and vice president of the Memphis PTA. “The way it’s set up right now, you’re either…the child who needs the extra help, special-needs, and the resources are there for you, or you’re in the middle and you’re the forgotten child and there aren’t resources for you and then you fail.”

“Each year [the proposal] has been refined and made more Tennessee-specific,” said Brent Easley, state director for StudentsFirst, a national reform advocacy group. “It takes those options the district already has and allows parents to take a part in the conversation. It really is cooperative process this year, from the parents to the districts.”

Once a petition reaches the required number of signatures, the district must choose one of the reform options, but signees are responsible to support the process.

The follow-up process once a turnaround options is enacted is also unique to Tennessee. All parents who sign a petition to turn around their child’s school also sign a pledge to support the process.

“It’s your ultimate parent empowerment bill because it not only gives them the power to turn a school around, but requires them to be part of the process,” DeBerry said.

Another Choice on the Menu
While vouchers offer parents choice, this bill empowers parents to change a school that their child is already in, Easley said.

This bill reflects parents from different parts of the state, he added.

“People who call themselves education professionals who say that parents don’t have the sense to know what is best for children, I repudiate that,” DeBerry said. “[Parents] will be held responsible if their child fails or isn’t educated properly.”

Collins says the bill is needed in Memphis, where she lives. She praised option to replace administrators because “administration can block a teacher’s ability to perform to their full ability.”

“With schools closing down and schools at the end of the year not making a passing grade as a whole, I thought this was a much needed opportunity for us to save those schools and save the kids at the same time.”

Likelihood of Passage
“Legislators in Tennessee are committed to giving parents options,” Easley said. “We’ve seen support for this as it’s moved through the committee system. We feel good about the prospects.”

DeBerry said he expects both support and opposition.

“The status quo is very entrenched and…basically want things to stay the same regardless of what it does for children,” he said.

One difficulty is the bill’s cost. The state must pay to verify and review petitions that parents submit, and to shift schools around.

“We’re on a very tight budget this year in Tennessee so that will play a part in every piece of legislation that has a cost associated with it,” Easley said. “We are looking into how that cost could be mitigated.” 


Image by Antonio Villaraigosa.