The Tennessee Parent Trigger

Parent-trigger laws, or laws that allow parents to intervene when their child’s school is failing, have become increasingly popular over the past several years. Though the laws vary by state, the general concept is that a majority of the parents, and sometimes teachers, in a failing school can petition the school district to take a number of different actions, including converting the school to a charter, reconstituting the administration of the school, or even closure. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is lauded by school reform advocates for passing the first parent-trigger act in 2010, and just a few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation, approved a petition from parents to convert 24th Street Elementary School to a public charter school. According to the NCSL, a total of seven states (California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio (pilot program only), and Texas) have passed similar parent-trigger laws since 2010.

One state that’s been left off of that list is Tennessee, though Tennessee has actually had a weak, little-known, parent-trigger law in effect since 2002. The current law, which is embedded in the state’s charter school law, allows a public school to convert to a charter school if 60% of the school’s parents or teachers sign a petition seeking the conversion and the school district’s board of directors agree. According to the Nashville City Paper, the “trigger” has only been attempted twice: first in Memphis in 2007 when a conversion was approved and KIPP took over a middle school, and just last year, in Knox County, where the conversion has yet to be approved. One lawmaker, however, has proposed making it easier to “pull the trigger.”

Representative John J. DeBerry, Jr. (D-Memphis) filed a bill last month to ease some of the restrictions of the current law. HB77 authorizes a public school in the bottom 20% of the state in student achievement to convert to a public charter school or transform under one of the four intervention models under the federal Race to the Top program (turnaround model, restart model, school closure, and transformation model) if 51% of either the parents or teachers in the school agree. If the school district determines that the option chosen by the parents is logistically impossible to implement, it must decide which options it can implement. Parents can then appeal this decision to the State Board of Education.

StudentsFirst, a national education reform group currently working in 17 states, is advocating on behalf of parent-trigger legislation all over the country. A similar bill was filed in Arkansas in 2011, but failed to get out of committee. I’ve heard a similar bill will be filed again in Arkansas sometime this session, but I haven’t seen it yet. This kind of legislation continues to gain momentum throughout the country, and should this bill be filed here again this session, I suspect that it will be taken much more seriously than it was two years ago.


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